Abū ʿAbdillāh Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfi‘ī
Abu ʿAbdillah Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i with Islamic calligraphy
|Born||August 767 CE|
Gaza, Bilad al-Sham, the Abbasid Caliphate
|Died||19th of January 820 CE (aged 54)|
|Era||Islamic Golden Age|
|Notable idea(s)||Shafi'i madhhab|
|Notable work(s)||Risalah: Usul al Fiqh, Kitab al-Umm|
Abū ʿAbdillāh Muhammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (Arabic: أبـو عـبـد الله مـحـمـد ابـن إدريـس الـشـافـعيّ) (767–820 CE, 150–204 AH) was an Arab Muslim theologian, writer, and scholar, who was the first contributor of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (Uṣūl al-fiqh). Often referred to as 'Shaykh al-Islām', al-Shāfi‘ī was one of the four great Imams, whose legacy on juridical matters and teaching eventually led to the Shafi'i school of fiqh (or Madh'hab). He was the most prominent student of Imam Malik ibn Anas and he also served as the Governor of Najar. Born in Gaza, he also lived in Mecca, Medina, Yemen, Egypt and Baghdad.
The biography of al-Shāfi‘i is difficult to trace. Dawud al-Zahiri was said to be the first to write such a biography, but the book has been lost.[page needed] The oldest surviving biography goes back to Ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi (died 327 AH/939 CE) and is no more than a collection of anecdotes, some of them fantastical. A biographical sketch was written by Zakarīya b. Yahya al-Sājī was later reproduced, but even then, a great deal of legend had already crept into the story of al-Shāfi‘i's life. The first real biography is by Ahmad Bayhaqi (died 458 AH/1066 CE) and is filled with what a modernist eye would qualify as pious legends. The following is what seems to be a sensible reading, according to a modern reductionist perspective.
Al-Shāfi‘ī belonged to the Qurayshi clan of Banu Muttalib, which was the sister clan of the Banu Hashim, to which the Prophet Muhammad and the ‘Abbasid caliphs belonged. This lineage may have given him prestige, arising from his belonging to the tribe of Muhammad, and his great-grandfather's kinship to him. However, al-Shāfi‘ī grew up in poverty, in spite of his connections in the highest social circles.
He was born in Gaza by the town of Asqalan in 150 AH (767 CE). His father died in Ash-Sham while he was still a child. Fearing the waste of his sharīf lineage, his mother decided to move to Mecca when he was about two years old. Furthermore, his maternal family roots were from Al-Yemen, and there were more members of his family in Mecca, where his mother believed he would better be taken care of. Little is known about al-Shāfi‘ī's early life in Mecca, except that he was brought up in poor circumstances and that from his youth he was devoted to learning. An account states that his mother could not afford to buy his paper, so he would write his lessons on bones, particularly shoulder-bones. He studied under Muslim ibn Khalid az-Zanji, the Mufti of Mecca then, who is thus considered to be the first teacher of Imam al-Shāfi‘ī. By the age of seven, al-Shāfi‘ī had memorized the Qur’an. At ten, he had committed Imam Malik's Muwatta' to heart, at which time his teacher would deputize him to teach in his absence. Al-Shāfi‘ī was authorized to issue fatwas at the age of fifteen.
Al-Shāfi‘ī moved to Al-Medinah in a desire for further legal training, as was the tradition of acquiring knowledge. Accounts differ on the age in which he set out to Medina; an account placed his age at thirteen, while another stated that he was in his twenties. There, he was taught for many years by the famous Imam Malik ibn Anas, who was impressed with his memory, knowledge and intelligence. By the time of Imam Mālik's death in 179 AH (795 CE), al-Shāfi‘ī had already gained a reputation as a brilliant jurist. Even though he would later disagree with some of the views of Imam Mālik, al-Shāfi‘ī accorded the deepest respect to him by always referring to him as "the Teacher".
At the age of thirty, al-Shāfi‘ī was appointed as the ‘Abbasid governor in the Yemeni city of Najran. He proved to be a just administrator but soon became entangled with factional jealousies. In 803 CE, al-Shāfi‘ī was accused of aiding the 'Alids in an Alid revolt, and was thus summoned in chains with a number of 'Alids to the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid at Raqqa. Whilst other conspirators were put to death, al-Shafi'i's own eloquent defense convinced the Caliph to dismiss the charge. Other accounts state that the famous Hanafi jurist, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī, was present at the court and defended al-Shāfi‘ī as a well-known student of the sacred law. What was certain was that the incident brought al-Shāfi‘ī in close contact with al-Shaybānī, who would soon become his teacher. It was also postulated that this unfortunate incident impelled him to devote the rest of his career to legal studies, never again to seek government service.
Al-Shāfi'ī traveled to Baghdad to study with Abu Hanifah's acolyte al-Shaybānī and others. It was here that he developed his first madh'hab, influenced by the teachings of both Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik. His work thus became known as "al Madhhab al Qadim lil Imam as Shafi’i," or the Old School of al-Shafi'i.
It was here that al-Shāfi'ī actively participated in legal arguments with the Hanafī jurists, strenuously defending the Mālikī school of thought. Some authorities stress the difficulties encountered by him in his arguments. Al-Shāfi'ī eventually left Baghdad for Mecca in 804 CE, possibly because of complaints by Hanafī followers to al-Shaybānī that al-Shafi'i had become somewhat critical of al-Shaybānī's position during their disputes. As a result, al-Shāfi'ī reportedly participated in a debate with al-Shaybānī over their differences, though who won the debate is disputed.
In Mecca, al-Shāfi'ī began to lecture at the Sacred Mosque, leaving a deep impression on many students of law, including the famous Hanbali jurist, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal. Al-Shāfi'ī's legal reasoning began to mature, as he started to appreciate the strength in the legal reasoning of the Hanafī jurists, and became aware of the weaknesses inherent in both the Mālikī and Hanafī schools of thought.
Al-Shāfi'ī eventually returned to Baghdad in 810 CE. By this time, his stature as a jurist had grown sufficiently to permit him to establish an independent line of legal speculation. Caliph Al-Ma'mun is said to have offered al-Shāfi'ī a position as a judge, but he declined the offer.
In 814 CE, al-Shāfi'ī decided to leave Baghdad for Egypt. The precise reasons for his departure from Al-‘Iraq are uncertain, but it was in Egypt that he would meet another tutor, Sayyidah Nafisah bint Al-Hasan, who would also financially support his studies, and where he would dictate his life's works to students. Several of his leading disciples would write down what al-Shāfi'ī said, who would then have them read it back aloud so that corrections could be made. Al-Shāfi'ī biographers all agree that the legacy of works under his name are the result of those sessions with his disciples.
At least one authority states that al-Shāfi'ī died as a result of injuries sustained from an attack by supporters of a Maliki follower named Fityan. The story goes that al-Shāfi'ī triumphed in the argument over Fityan, who, being intemperate, resorted to abuse. The Governor of Egypt, with whom al-Shafi'i had good relations, ordered Fityan punished by having him paraded through the streets of the city carrying a plank and stating the reason for his punishment. Fityan's supporters were enraged by this treatment and attacked Shafi'i in retaliation after one of his lectures. Al-Shafi'i died a few days later. However, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani in his biography of al-Shāfi'ī Tawālī al-Ta'sīs, casts doubt on this story saying "I do not consider this from a reliable source".  However, al-Shāfi'ī was also known to have suffered from a serious intestinal illness/hemorrhoids, which kept him frail and ailing during the later years of his life. The precise cause of his death is thus unknown.
Al-Shāfi'ī died at the age of 54 on the 30th of Rajab in 204 AH (20 January 820 CE), in Al-Fustat, Egypt, and was buried in the vault of the Banū ‘Abd al-Hakam, near Mount al-Muqattam. The qubbah (Arabic: قُـبَّـة, dome) was built in 608 AH (1212 CE) by the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil, and the mausoleum remains an important site today.
Al-Shāfi'ī is credited with creating the essentials of the science of fiqh (the system of Islamic jurisprudence). He designated the four principles/sources/components of fiqh, which in order of importance are:
Scholar John Burton goes farther, crediting Al-Shafi'i not just with establishing the science of fiqh in Islam, but its importance to the religion. "Where his contemporaries and their predecessors had engaged in defining Islam as a social and historical phenomenon, Shafi'i sought to define a revealed Law."
With this systematization of shari'a, he provided a legacy of unity for all Muslims and forestalled the development of independent, regionally based legal systems. The four Sunni legal schools or madhhabs keep their traditions within the framework that Shafi'i established. One of the schools – Shafi'i fiqh – is named for Al-Shāfi‘ī. It is followed in many different places in the Islamic world: Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen as well as Sri Lanka and southern parts of India.
Al-Shāfi‘ī emphasized the final authority of a hadith of Muhammad so that even the Qur'an was "to be interpreted in the light of traditions (i.e. hadith), and not vice versa." While traditionally the Quran is considered above the Sunna in authority, Al-Shafi'i "forcefully argued" that the sunna stands "on equal footing with the Quran", (according to scholar Daniel Brown) for – as Al-Shafi'i put it – "the command of the Prophet is the command of God."
"insists time after time that nothing can override the authority of the Prophet, even if it be attested only by an isolate tradition, and that every well-authenticated tradition going back to the Prophet has precedence over the opinions of his Companions, their Successors, and later authorities."
The focus by the Muslim community on ahadith of Muhammad and disinterest in ahadith of Muhammad's companions (whose ahadith were commonly used before Al-Shāfi‘ī since most of whom survived him and spread his teachings after his death) is thought (by scholar Joseph Schacht) to reflect the success of Al-Shāfi‘ī's doctrine.
Al-Shāfi‘ī influence was such that he changed the use of the term Sunnah, "until it invariably meant only the Sunnah of the Prophet" (according to John Burton this was his "principle achievement"). While earlier, sunnah had been used to refer to tribal manners and customs, (and while Al-Shāfi‘ī distinguished between the non-authoritative "sunnah of the Muslims" that was followed in practice, and the "sunnah of the Prophet" that Muslims should follow), sunnah came to mean the Sunnah of Muhammad.
In the Islamic sciences, Burton credits him with "the imposition of a formal theoretical distinction" between `the Sunnah of the Prophet` and the Quran, "especially where the two fundamental sources appeared to clash".
Saladin built a madrassah and a shrine on the site of his tomb. Saladin's brother Afdal built a mausoleum for him in 1211 after the defeat of the Fatamids. It remains a site where people petition for justice.
Among the followers of Imam al-Shāfi‘ī’s school were:
He authored more than 100 books.
In addition to this, al-Shafi'i was an eloquent poet, who composed many short poems aimed at addressing morals and behavior.
Tradition says that he memorized the Qur’an at the age of seven; by ten, he had memorized the Muwatta of Malik ibn Anas; he was a mufti (given authorization to issue fatwa) at the age of fifteen. He recited the Qur'an every day in prayer, and twice a day in Ramadan. Some apocryphal accounts claim he was very handsome, that his beard did not exceed the length of his fist, and that it was very black. He wore a ring that was inscribed with the words, "Allah suffices Muhammad ibn Idris as a reliance." He was also known to be very generous.
He was also an accomplished archer, a poet and some accounts call him the most eloquent of his time. Some accounts claim that there was a group of Bedouin who would come and sit to listen to him, not for the sake of learning, but just to listen to his eloquent use of the language. Even in later eras, his speeches and works were used by Arabic grammarians. He was given the title of Nasir al-Sunnah, the Defender of the Sunnah.
Al-Shafi‘i loved the Islamic prophet Muhammad very deeply. Al Muzani said of him, "He said in the Old School: ‘Supplication ends with the invocation of blessings on the Prophet, and its end is but by means of it.’” Al-Karabisi said: “I heard al-Shafi’i say that he disliked for someone to say ‘the Messenger’ (al-Rasul), but that he should say ‘Allah’s Messenger’ (Rasul Allah) out of veneration for him.” He divided his night into three parts: one for writing, one for praying, and one for sleeping.
Apocryphal accounts claim that Imam Ahmad said of al-Shafi'i, "I never saw anyone adhere more to hadith than al-Shafi’i. No one preceded him in writing down the hadith in a book." Imam Ahmad is also claimed to have said, "Not one of the scholars of hadith touched an inkwell nor a pen except he owed a huge debt to al-Shafi’i.”
Muhammad al-Shaybani said, "If the scholars of hadith speak, it is in the language of al-Shafi’i.”
A Mujadid appears at the end of every century: The Mujtahid of the 1st century was Imam of Ahlul Sunnah, Umar bin Abdul Aziz. The Mujadid of the 2nd century was Imam of Ahlul Sunnah Muhammad Idrees as-Shafi'i the Mujadid of the 3rd century was Imam of Ahlul Sunnah Abu Hasan Ashari the Mujadid of the 4th century was Abu Abdullah Hakim Nishapuri.
According to many accounts, he was said to have a photographic memory. One anecdote states that he would always cover one side of a book while reading because a casual glance at the other page would commit it to memory.
He claimed that the game of chess was an image of war, and it was possible to play chess as a mental exercise for the solution of military tactics. Chess could not be played for a stake, but if a player was playing for a mental exercise, he was not doing anything illegal. Provided the player took care that his fondness for chess did not cause him to break any other rule of life, he saw no harm in playing chess. He played chess himself, defending his practice by the example of many of his companions.
Early Islamic scholars
Helal M Abu Taher, Char Imam(Four Imams), Islamic Foundation, Dhaka,1980.
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