A Simple Summary of the Four Sunni Schools of Law

A Simple Summary of the Four Sunni Schools of Law


Salam brother, could you give a simple summary on the 4 different madhabs?

Wa alykum as-salaam,

Sure. I’m going to keep this one basic, and my break down of the four Sunni Madahab (plural of madhab) is going to as simple as possible, so that if there are follow up questions, I can answer them more accurately.

Here comes the complicated part, I’m going to outline the various jurisprudential tools that are used by these scholars. There are more tools then the one’s listed here, but it’s important to understand the various tools so that we can “compare” the difference between madahabs outside of the politics that we (today) interject into them.

The most common used tools are:

Ijma [consensus] Early Islam allowed leaders, essentially representatives, to come together and discuss these adminstrative and legal issues. As the Islamic Empire grew, it became physically impossible, so ijma was restricted to mujtahids, learned scholars. This is the main arm of Democracy in Islam, as well as, the source of legislation is Islamic Democracies.

The basis for ijma is from The Qur’an, “But as for him who, after guidance has been vouchsafed to him, cuts himself off from Apostle and follows a path other than that of the believers” [4:115] while there is also a Hadith that The Prophet said “My community will never unanimously agree on error.”

Qiyas [analogical reasoning] deriving a new rule or ordinance, reference was made to a general principle asserted to have caused a similar rule explicity stated in The Qur’an. This general principle was then used to validate or deduce the new rule.

Example: wine is explicity prohibited in The Qur’an, and the general principle entailed here is that intoxicants are prohibited. Therefore, other alcoholic beverages and narcotics are prohibited in Islam.

Istihsan [Juristic Preference, Discretion]. To some jurists, it is merely the choice between alternative personal opinions or qiyas. Others say it was the abandonment of the result of a qiyas in favor of the result of another qiyas with stronger evidence from The Qur’an or Sunna.

Masalih al Mursalah or Istislah [Public Welfare] Simple, the public good required this view.

Example: the sale of weapons during a civil disturbance was prohibited since it may intensify or prolong the struggle, thereby causing more harm to society.

Istishab Presumption of a previous state of affairs continued to exist unless otherwise proven. Example: Presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Adat [Customs] and ’Urf [Existing Practices] are seen as okay, as long as they do not conflict with The Qur’an or the Sunna.

Ijtihad [Individual Judgement] The most famous and the one most oftly recognized as locked away in the 10th century. I’d like to clarify that, it was “closed” because of the political instability of the times, where the scholars did not feel that more schools of thought (after the major ones finally came together) would benefit the unity of the Umma, thus on a basis of Ijma, they closed it. There are very strong arguments that it never actually closed.

It’s basis comes from a very strong Hadith of The Prophet: the Prophet appointed Mu’adh ibn Jabal as judge to Yemen. It has been reported that on the eve of his departure, the Prophet asked ibn Jabal: “According to what shalt thou judge?” He replied: “According to the Book of God.” “And if thou findest naught therein?” “Then I will exert myself to form my own judgment…” And thereupon the Prophet said: “Praise be to God Who has guided the messenger of His Prophet to that which pleases His Prophet.”

Now, those are the tools that are used, but before I go into the four madahab, I want to underline the fact that various scholars used different tools at different times, but they preferred some tools over others. Please keep this in mind when going through my very  brief outline of the four madahab.

Hanafi. [Kufa, Iraq] Founded by Abu Hanifa (699-767) The oldest school, also considered the most liberal. Open to foreign influences by virtue of its location, and was subject to a cross-fertilization of ideas. He was the only Imam of the four madahab to have met Sahaba.

Emphasis: Qiyas and Istihsan

Maliki [Medina] Founded by Malik ibn Anas (718-795) In his search for another authoritative source after the Qur’an and the Sunna to arrive at legal rules, he resorted to the practices of the four “Rightly Guided” Caliphs of Madina. His speciality was the early Muslim community in Medina, and looked at that community as the model of Islamic practice. Also compiled the first authoritative work on Hadith, and is the “father” of the Hadith science. This work is what I use, and is called al-Muwatta.

Emphasis: Ijma and Masalah al-mursalah (Istislah)

Shafi’i [Egypt] Founded by Al-Shafi’i (767-820) Student of Malik ibn Anas, did most of his work in Egypt. He wanted to synthesize the legal schools, and he emphasized the tradition of the Prophet while limiting the use of qiyas and istihsan. To him, qiyas was a form of ijtihad. He put emphasis on the Qur’anic verses that ordered Muslims to “Obey Allah and His Messenger…” al-Shafi’i felt that this meant that the Sunna should serve as an interpretation or explanation of The Qur’an, and the Sunna could not abrogate The Qur’an, nor could The Qur’an abrogate the Sunna, implying that the Sunna was wrong. He helped heal major rifts between scholars, and his synthesis is critical towards the harmony afforded between the schools.

Emphasis: Qiyas as Ijtihad, and he wanted a very broad Ijma, but that was untenable because of technology.

Hanbali [Iraq] Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855) a student of al-Shafi’i, called for a close and literal interpretation of The Qur’an and Hadith. Restricted Ijtihad and made very little use of qiyas. He was known more as a traditionalist rather than a jurist, concerned with preserving the way things were rather than pushing forward new answers. He is probably the most misunderstood and his ideas are taken out of context (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) more than any other scholar.

Emphasis: Limited Qiyas and Restricted Ijtihad, Textual Literalist.

There you have it, the most basic way I can explain the four madahab, and with a general idea as to what tools they preferred to use over others. I hope this helped, and please ask follow up questions as needed.

If there are any other questions about this or any other subject, please ask, and I will answer as soon as I can, Insha Allah.

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