Islamic Law Sciences of Qur'an and Hadith

A Review of 'Abu Hanifah: His Life, Legal Method & Legacy'

Abu Hanifah: His Life, Legal Method & Legacy By Shaykh Akram Nadwi (UK: Kube and Interface, 2010)

The 2001 Census indicated that 68% of British Muslims were of South Asian origin; and many of those identified as “white” Muslims were of Turkish, Bosnian, Kosovan and Albanian origin. The fact that the Muslim lands of South Asia and Europe are largely linked to the Hanafi legal school is a sufficient reason in itself for justifying the mass of literature dedicated to the school in English. Although most of this literature has been of a standard foreign to most English-speaking academics and professionals, there has been a recent trend of high quality works (most notably Imran Nyazee’s translations of most of the two of the four volumes of Marghinani’s al-Hidayah, for the second translated volume is an abridgement of the original; and some works of Turath Publishing). There are some detailed works on the life of Imam Abu Hanifah in English, such as Shibli Numani’s Imam Abu Hanifa: Life and Work, Abu Zahra’s The Four Imams: Their Lives, Works and Schools of Thought and Gibril Fouad Haddad’s The Four Imams and their Schools Abu Zahra’s work appears to be the least agenda-driven of the set, hence more purely factual. The release of Shaykh Akram Nadwi’s Abu Hanifah: His Life, Legal Method & Legacy is a welcome scholarly addition to these works. In some ways, one could see Shaykh Akram’s work as assuming the position of the mandatory introduction in English, due to its concise yet scholarly breadth.

The methodology of the work is to rely on the most authentic and rigorous studies of the Imam in the Muslim languages of Arabic and Urdu, by authors such as Abu Zahra, Dhahabi, Haytami, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Kardari, Kawthari, Abu Mu’ayyad al-Makki, Shibli, Suyuti, Zafar Thanawi and Ghawuji. Moreover, he delves into the treasures stored in the historical works of the hadith scholars like Dhahabi, Khatib Baghdadi, ‘Asqalani and Mizzi. Then the Shaykh draws on his legal training in the seminary of Lucknow to bring to light legal examples from the Hanafi legal classics, such as those of Shaybani, Tahawi, Marghinani and Kasani. The work is enriched by the use of diagrams to show the prominence of Abu Hanifah’s teachers, the variety of them, and his intimately close connection to a comprehensive inheritance of the Prophetic teaching. Yet, the work makes no extended mention or reference to orientalists or their points of view – except a short reference and rebuttal to Schacht. Therefore, students seeking a direct response to Western scholars known for referring to the Hanafi school, such as Schacht, Hallaq, Melchert, Wheeler, and Tsafrir, will be disappointed, although there are of course indirect and unwitting rebuttals and supports contained therein, so such a seeker might well still profit here (even if it is mainly to access some initial ideas and direction to further, more advanced, sources), insha’Allah.

The first chapter introduces the development of Islamic law and its importance toa wholesome Islamic practice. This detailed introduction sets the scene for how law was first a comprehensive Prophetic vocation, and that it was successively inherited by each following generation until it reached a height of formal development in the works of Abu Hanifah and the following generation.

The second chapter expounds on the Imam’s life in general, and touches upon his ancestry, teachers, students, relationship with the state and the glowing opinions of his contemporaries about him. This section rightly also sets forth the dedicated spiritual activity of the Imam, and his practise of good spiritual deeds and his embodiment of so many praiseworthy states of being.

A rich presentation occurs in the third chapter on his fiqh, or legal reasoning. This chapter can be identified as the most profound chapter of the book. The author is here correct to present the Kufan nature of the school, and how many of the great Companions (may God be well pleased with them all) came to this city founded by ‘Umar, and made it a great resource for propagating the Prophetic inheritance. Most notable among these Companions were ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud, ‘Ali, Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas, Hudhayfah and Abu Musa al-Ash’ari, with the first two being the foremost. However, as supported by material from the second chapter, Abu Hanifah is established as not merely taking knowledge from Kufa, but also travelling on a regular basis to the other centres of learning in Madina and Makka, so much so that he can also be stated to have inherited the legal reasoning and narrations of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, Ibn ‘Umar, ‘A’isha, Mu’adh and Ibn ‘Abbas. In real terms, Abu Hanifah is only separated by one generation from the Prophet ﷺ (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him), i.e. the Imam was a “Follower” (tabi’i), a generation after the Companions.

This third chapter is further enriched by the elaboration on the actual principles of the Imam’s school. Here the presentation does not merely rely on abstract principles, but numerous examples are brought forth to understand the depth of legal reasoning that is at work in the Imam’s thought. In an age reduced to hasty conclusions of what is an understanding of “the Qur’an and the Sunnah,” Shaykh Akram illustrates the practical result of the Imam’sgiving preference to the Qur’an over all but the most-narrated hadith (i.e. the holding of the khabar al-wahid, or solitary traditions, to have the epistemological status of “zann,” or conjecture, even if authentic) or qiyas (analogical reasoning); or his accepting the mursal narrations – those in which the Companion narrator is missing – as did his contemporaries (like Malik, Awza’i, Layth, Sufyan and others), in distinction to the more critical approach of the later generation (characterised in the respective theories of Shafi’i and Bukhari).

Moreover, the chapter succinctly illustrates the complexity of Abu Hanifah’s method of preferring the ahadith narrated by jurists. This method is intimately related to the discussion in the book on the controversy of the ahl al-hadith and the ahl al-ra’y (people of opinion, as the Hanafis were designated). For a reader accustomed to Shafi’i and traditionalist Salafi presentations on the issue of hadith, one will be surprised to see Shaykh Akram’s frank appraisal. The opposition to Abu Hanifah by Bukhari and Ibn Abi Shaybah are presented as lacking legal profundity on the whole (in fact, Bukhari’s “criticisms” are all characterised by Nadwi as “misplaced”), and to be representative of hadith experts (muhaddiths) and not jurists; and the fact that such representatives of the foremost hadith scholars could muster very few issues with which to criticise the Imam shows the general paucity of the attack, in terms of intellectual rigour and personal animosity.

In the immature West, one sometimes hears a few amateurish criticisms against Abu Hanifah on a small number of issues by some of those who claim to adhere to the sunnah, as though the whole edifice of Sacred Law was based on raf’ al-yadayn (raising the hands) or placing the hands below or above the navel in the ritual prayer. Shaykh Akram aptly quotes the story of the hadith scholar A’mash sitting with Abu Hanifah and asking the latter a question, to which the Imam answered with numerous narrations he actually took from A’mash; upon which, in part, A’mash said, “That is enough! What I narrated to you in a hundred days, you have narrated to me in an hour. I did not know that you apply these hadiths. You jurists are doctors and we are the pharmacists, and you are a man who has got hold of both sides.” Furthermore, Shaykh Akram provides the coup de grace to those who doubt Abu Hanifah’s standing amongst the hadith scholars by mentioning the praise of him by Dhahabi, Ibn Ma’in, ‘Ali ibn al-Madini (Bukhari’s principal teacher) and Ahmad; the fact that Abu Hanifah’s opinions of narrators were quoted with authority by Tirmidhi and Bayhaqi; and that the Imam was an authority in legal rulings for hadith scholars like ‘Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, Yahya ibn Sa’id al-Qattan, Waki’ ibn al-Jarrah, Yahya ibn Ma’in and Mis’ar ibn Kidam. [Gibril Haddad, in Muhammad Hisham Kabbani’s Encyclopedia of Islamic Doctrine, volume 7: Forgotten Aspects of Islamic Worship, Part Two,  has performed a fair task in seeking to counter the claims that Abu Hanifah was criticised or weakened by Bukhari, Muslim, Daraqutni, Ibn ‘Adi, Nasa’i, Ibn Hibban, Ibn Abi Hatim, Dhahabi, Ibn Sa’d and Hakim. Haddad claimed authorship of the section in the Encyclopedia in his own Four Imams, despite being only credited as an editor in the sleeve of the Encyclopedia. God knows best. The material can be viewed here.]

Of course, one who has read Shaykh Akram’s al-Fiqh al-Islami, volume 1, on Hanafi Sacred Law, or who has studied Islamic law with him, will know that such a defence is not characteristic of a rigid Hanafi method moulded by the late works of the Hanafis (such as Ibn ‘Abidin); nor is it a complete dismissal of the method of the hadith scholars. If anything, his method is a refreshing balance between two such extremes that have long been prevalent in the English-speaking West. Therefore his approach is best understood as telling a Hanafi to not just bring Ibn ‘Abidin as a reference for one’s position, and a warning to the non-Hanafi coming to criticise Abu Hanifah to bring more than a superficial reading of Ibn Hajar’s Bulugh al-Maram or Sayyid Sabiq’s Fiqh al-Sunnah or Albani’s Prophet’s Prayer – may the peace and blessings of God be upon him.

The fourth and fifth chapters deal with the works attributed to the Imam, his students, and his achievement and legacy. To sum up, one only has to look at the hold the school has had in attracting adherents amongst scholars, rulers and lay-people, and has remained a powerful and relevant force from its inception until now. For the student of knowledge, Shaykh Akram maps out the path towards mastering the school, and then going from student to becoming a full scholar, by listing the works of the school and their key and beneficial features. Sometimes one can misunderstand his comments. For instance, he identifies Marghinani’s al-Hidayah as having a “major failing,” which is its “many weak hadiths, and even misquotes some hadiths and athar [narrations of Companions and others]” and therefore in this “respect al-Kasani’s Bada’i is far better.” A rash person might see this as an abuse of the al-Hidayah, but it is far from it. If anything, this is simply a priceless piece of advice from an expert, for one to enrich one’s study of al-Hidayah; it is far from a call to abandon or disregard the work. The proof of this assertion is Shaykh Akram’s directing the student to the al-Hidayah, as one of the “most useful” and “well-organized, systematic expositions of Hanafi fiqh,” and sheds “light on how Hanafis of the later period dealt with criticisms…” This balance is what characterises the Shaykh’s mild and infrequent points of disagreement with scholars, modern and classical; and his comments on the Hidayah also reflect his exact position in relation to Ibn ‘Abidin’s main work.

This little work cannot be faulted for it achieves its stated aim of trying “to understand how and why he [Abu Hanifah] came to deserve that title [of al-imam al-a’zam, or “the greatest one worthy to be followed].” Of course, the challenge is now to achieve what the Shaykh mentions in his postscript: “The threat to the Islamic way of life is sincerely felt and increasingly resisted. That resistance needs to be intelligent, consistent and constructive if it is to provide effective restoration of the heritage. Those are precisely the qualities that characterize the fiqh of Abu Hanifah.” Shaykh Akram has set himself this goal with his plans for the al-Fiqh al-Islami, planned for four volumes – one having been published, and a second in the editing process – covering acts of ritual worship, as well as personal law like marriage and divorce and commercial transactions. Due to previous experience with Shaykh Akram, one trusts that he is going about the accomplishment of this task whilst eschewing what is understood as strict late-Hanafism; in other words, it is a refreshing methodology that seeks to shed light on the earliest Hanafi doctrine whilst not being deaf to the principles of open and profound scholarship, being neither archaic nor anarchic.

On a side note, the artwork is a welcome return to ornamental covers for major Hanafi works in English, as opposed to the minimalist covers featuring primarily the Arabic text of the book (favoured for the Hanafi series by both Amal Press and Turath Publishing, under the artwork design of Abdal-Latif Whiteman). Although one might here wonder at such a seemingly random – although aesthetically pleasing – choice: Turkish tiles from the sixteenth century. Now Turks are heavily Hanafi, but could one not find some Kufan artwork from Abu Hanifah’s time or even a tile from the current Abu Hanifah masjid in Baghdad (a picture of which is included in this book)? A small point, but one for publishers to consider: does one try and fit the art to the theme or personality of the book, or just make choices based on purely artistic grounds (as appears to have occurred here)?

Ultimately, we need to look beyond book covers and fonts and paper types, and see the essence of what is before us. With this book, we have a manual worthy of inclusion into a revivalist library: to show the paths of giants, so that we may aspire to them, or seek to at least support those whom we see aiming and capable of reaching such summits, even if we are too impoverished. In the English language, we have a great asset in Shaykh Akram, our dear teacher, who is working tirelessly to lay a foundation for Islamic greatness in the West, in a way that eschews bringing unwarranted and even destructive baggage from overseas; and we pray for him and his family, and us, to be enriched by his efforts, and for God to bless us all with His grace in following a blessed path towards our return to His eternity, in His pleasure. Amin.


This book was blessed to have two book launches in early 2011 with Shaykh Akram: firstly, in Batley, West Yorkshire, under the supervision of Sulayman Kazi (the main director of the Nadwi Foundation under Shaykh Akram’s instruction); and, secondly, in London with al-Buruj Press. In summary, the sessions reminded one of the importance of taking knowledge from scholars and not just books. In essence, the reason is that one can then drink from the manners and piety shown by true scholars – lessons which are completely unobservable by passing through pages of print alone.

On both occasions the Shaykh emphasised that Abu Hanifah’s overwhelming benefit and the reason for his monumental influence was his embodiment of the foundations of the religion (usul al-din), such as faith and the states of remembrance, hope and fear in the Divine, together with his adherence to the major branches of the religion (furu’ al-din al-kulliya) such as ritual prayer, fasting, and adhering to the categorically-established lawful and prohibited. Therefore he wanted to stress that the Imam’s real influence was not just limited to the lowest, albeit intimately connected, minor branch of the faith (furu’ al-din al-juz’iyya); namely, legal reasoning (ijtihad) concerning the finer details of Islamic law which are open to dispute. In this regard, and the reason for the emphasis, Shaykh Akram considered there to be an historical, and continuing, oversight, in which schools of law (madhahib) and adherence to them have been exaggerated; whereas the religion is far greater than minor points of disagreement on such subsidiary matters, and how people’s definition as Muslims is far, far greater than their being “Hanafis” or any other legal label that one assumes (other than Islamic or Muslim). Thus the Shaykh wanted to rebut fanatical madhhab adherence; yet without wanting to do away with madhhabism or even his own Hanafism – a dual approach of admirable subtlety and profundity, but which is often wasted on current audiences.

A further spiritual benefit of discussing the book’s content with the author was how he defended those hadith critics of Abu Hanifah, such as Ibn Abi Shayba and Bukhari. He mentioned how their criticisms were in fact defences, because they only picked up on a few issues. In the case of Ibn Abi Shayba, Shaykh Akram mentioned how the former – himself a Kufan – knew that the Hanafi school had achieved dominance, and his points of disagreement work as advices for improvement, rather than vindictive condemnations. Moreover, in the case of Bukhari, Shaykh Akram refuted the notion that Bukhari’s use of the phrase “ba’d al-nas,” or “some of the people,” was a reference to Abu Hanifah (as was the position of Zayla’i), due to the fact that the relevant references were to positions that people other than Abu Hanifah had, and that Bukhari’s politeness and manners makes such an approach out of step with his character.

In the London event, Shaykh Akram commented on the development of the Hanafi school, which is touched upon in the book, and how later Hanafis developed inconsistencies in their methodology which were not present in the early Hanafis, in much the same way as the later scholars of hadith started to develop inconsistencies to their early counterparts. He characterised how this also led to a Hanafi stagnation, as later books – such as the work of Ibn ‘Abidin – exhibited something of a detachment from the original sources of the Qur’an and hadith, and heavily relied upon later jurists for resolving legal problems. In specific regard to the Hanafi school, he mentioned how this has come to pass whereby contemporary issuers of legal rulings on new events in the Indian subcontinent will make analogical deductions based upon the old fatwa manuals (such as Shami or Hindiyyah or popular Urdu works), as opposed to going to the original sources of Islam. Therefore he pointed out the essential crisis of scholarship that exists; and one sensed a sentiment of pathos when he mentioned how the Hanafis never had a late jurist who reviewed the school in the same way as Nawawi had done with the Shafi’i school. He thus called for a revival of true scholarship that benefitted from these later works, but only whilst mastering the original sources and the works of the early Hanafi masters; and he urged that the up-coming generation of scholars do away with any complacency in the matter of scholarship, and that they apply themselves with full vigour to correcting the current malaise. [One can find some interesting views on Ibn ‘Abidin by Husain Kadodia, simply named “Husain” and ranked as “Ameer/Mufti” here.]

These two sessions were excellent advertisements for the importance of book launches in making authors accessible, as well as giving life to these works, so that the material can be truly embodied by the students in the improvement of their character and soul. We pray that this becomes a tradition in the Muslim community.


About the author

Andrew Booso

Andrew Booso

Andrew Booso is originally from London, England and is a graduate of law from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has taken religious instruction from Shaykh Iqbal Azami and Shaykh Muhammad Akram Nadwi, as well as numerous students of knowledge. He is currently on the Advisory Board of the England-based Spring Foundation, which is a scholarship charity for students of the Islamic sciences.

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  • Jazakallah for the review. Works like these are much needed in the west where the Hanafi school is little understood and its scholarship surprisingly lags behind the other three schools.

  • Mashallah great review. People have to realize the depth of the hanafi school with its approach to the usul. People usually downplay its “lack” of hadith usage, but what about the Musnad of Abu Hanifa, the zahir riwaya, which were 6 six hadith books that were compiled by Muhammad Ash-Shaybani, the Muwatta of Imam Muhammad, Athar As-Sunan by Imam Nemawi, Ma’ani Athar by Imam At-Tahawi. All this not to mention the massive 21 volume I’la As-Sunan compiled by Zafar Ahmad Uthmani.

  • “he pointed out the essential crisis of scholarship that exists; and one sensed a sentiment of pathos when he mentioned how the Hanafis never had a late jurist who reviewed the school ”

    What crisis? He needs to be specific as to where is the crisis and what aspects of the school need to be reviewed. Making such blanket statements does no one any good. Will be changes in Ibadaath (such as prayer and zakah)? The beauty of the Hanafi school is that the early scholars thoroughly discussed even hypotheticals which meant minimal ijtihad was needed by the mutakhareen; which was not the case in the Shafi’.

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