TRADITIONAL ISLAM as understood by the vast majority of ulama's of the Ahli Sunnah wal Jama'ah



Imam Al-Shafi’i

Intelligence, lucidity and right judgement


To his students, his advice was to concentrate their time and efforts in studying the Hadith. He told them repeated if they found and authentic Hadith in conflict with his views, they should accept the Hadith.


‘If I were to walk from Madinah to Makkah [a distance of 500 kilometres] barefoot, with no mount to carry me, it would be easier for me than to walk to Malik’s home here in Madinah. I am never in a humble position until I stand at his doorstep,’ said the governor of Madinah al-Munnawwarah as he finished reading a letter from his counterpart in Makkah.


The governor of Makkah al-Mukarramah had wanted him to introduce a young man to the great scholar of Madinah al-Munnawwarah. The young man continues the story;


‘The governor and a number of his men went with me until we reached Malik’s home and one man knocked on the door.  A maid opened [the door] and he told her that the governor wanted to see the scholar. She went in and came back after a long while to say: “May master greets you well and says: ‘If you have a case requiring a ruling, then you may write it down and he will send you the answer. If you want to learn Hadith, you know the day when he holds his [study] circle. You may wish to leave now.”


‘The governor said to her: “Tell him that I have a letter addressed to him from the governor of Makkah in an important matter.”


‘She went in, then she came out again, and brought with her a chair.’


‘Shortly afterwards, Malik came out. He was a tall, old man who inspired much awe and respect. He sat on the chair and read the letter until he reached the request made by the governor on my behalf. He threw the letter down and said: “have we reached so low that the study of the Prophet’s Hadith is sought through favours and high position!”


‘The governor of Madinah was in awe [of Malik] and could not reply. So I ventured to speak: “May God grant you His favours. I am a man form the Muttalib branch of Quraysh, and I have so far done this and that.’


Malik was endowed with penetrative insight. He asked the young man his name and then said: ‘Muhammad! Be always God-fearing, and avoid sin, for you will acquire distinction. God has given you light in your heart, so do not let it be put out by indulging in sin. Come tomorrow to read.’


That was the first encounter between Imam Malik ibn Anas, the renowned scholar in his mid’70s, and Al-Shafi’i, just under 20, who was destined to be among the greatest scholars in our history.


The following day, Al-Shafi’i turned up with Malik’s Al-Muwatta’, and started to read. Malik was impressed with his diction and delivery. Concerned that his teacher might be tired Al-Shafi’i hesitated, but Malik asked him to continue. Thus, Al-Shafi’i managed to complete reading the great book under the great imam in a very short period.


Muhammad ibn Idris Al-Shafi’i, born in Gaza in 150 H (767) was of Qurayshi origin, with an ancestry that met Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam’s lineage at his grandfather, Abdulmattalib. Al-Shafi’i’s father died when he was very young, leaving him and his mother – of Yemeni origin – in utter poverty.


His mother’s decision to send the nearly 10-year-old Al-Shafi’i to Makkah al-Mukarramah, near his tribal ancestry, proved crucial. After entrusting him initially in the care of a relative, she followed him there to keep an eye on his studies.


As he could not afford enough writing material, the keen student used to go to the governor’s offices in search of paper that had already been used. On the blank side of the paper, he would do his lessons. He committed to memory the Qur’an at a very young age.


In order to improve his knowledge of Arabic, he went deep into the desert to join the Bedouin tribe of Huthail, who were renowned for the best standard of literary Arabic. He memorised poetry and learnt their prose reporting and stories. He accompanied the tribe on nomadic travels, until he mastered all that was there to learn. He also learnt archery and became very skilful; he could hit the target 10 times out of 10.


On his return to Makkah al-Mukarramah he carried on studying. By the time he was nearly 20 he had completed all that its scholars has to teach, but this thirst for knowledge was not quenched. So, he traveled to Madinah al-Munnawwarah to learn from Imam Malik.


The meticulous student that he was, al-Shafi’i wished to have a foretaste of what he would be learning. He borrowed Al-Muwatta’ to read which only whetted his appetite and made him more eager to study under Malik.


Al-Shafi’i stayed very closed to Malik for nine years, during which he only travelled to visit his mother, or to stay for a short while with some bedouin tribes. The last three years at Malik’s study circle were doubly fruitful because the eminent Iraqi scholar. Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani (132-189H) who recorded all the Hanafi scholarship had come to study under Malik.


Malik used to support his students who had no means of living. Al-Shafi’i was one of them. When Malik died (179H), he returned to Makkah al-Mukarramah hoping to earn his living. The governor of Yemen was there on a visit when some people spoke to him about Al-Shafi’i, and he took him to Yemen where he was appointed justice in the city of Najran. The people there soon realised that they had a judge who was devoted to justice, unwilling to swerve from it for any favour or pressure. They loved him and learnt a great deal from him.


People who are unwilling to compromise often find themselves in the bad books of rulers. In his fifth years at Najran, Al-Shafi’i’s mettle was tasted when a strong-fisted governor took over. Al-Shafi’i did not spare him from criticism whenever the occasion arose. In the process of curbing the governor’s injustice, Al-Shafi’i earned his enmity.


The governor wrote to Caliph Al-Rasheed in Baghdad, accusing Al-Shafi’i of supporting a revolt by people loyal to the Alawis, the descendants of Ali ibn Talib, Radi-Allahuanhu. He said: ‘I have no authority over this man, and he achieves by his tongue much more than a fighter can achieve with this sword.’


Was this accusation baseless? No doubt, it was, because Al-Shafi’i never supported or advocated any revolt or rebellion against the Caliph. But he loved the Alawis, as they were the descendants of Ali, Radi-Allahu anhu, and Fatimah, Radi-allahu anha, the daughter of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam.


Despite his love, however, he never was a Shi’ah; nor did he believe that Ali Radi-Allahu anhu, had the strongest claim to be the Caliph after the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam.


On the contrary, Al-Shafi’i held he view that the four Caliphs were elected to the post in the right order of their suitability. He also regarded ‘Umar ibn Abdulaziz (d.101H), the Umayyad ruler, as the fifth of the rightly guided Caliphs.


Imam Al-Shafi’i, at the age of 34, was hauled in 184H before the Caliph in Baghdad, in fetters and chains. Among his advisers and top officials, present at the court, was none other than Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani, the Chief Justice. Two factors influenced the Caliph’s decision: a lucid defence by the accused himself; and Chief Justice Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani’s Testimony. Al-Shafi’i pointed out that his scholarship was known to the Chief Justice, who described Al-Shafi’i as a scholar of eminence who would not be involved in such matters.


Caliph Al-Rasheed, who was kind and lenient, saw in this testimony his way out to spare Al-Shafi’i. He told Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani to take Al-Shafi’i to his home while he thought the matter over. There the case ended. The charge was never revived. The governor who had rid himself of a fearless critic was no longer interested what happened to him.


This episode was a blessing in disguise because it brought Al-Shafi’i back on the path of acquiring knowledge. Al-Shafi’i stayed with Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani and read under his guidance all the books that he had written, recording the Fiqh of Abu Haneefah and his disciples. When Al-Shafi’i left Baghdad two years later, he said: ‘I carried with me a whole camel load of books, all of which I learnt directly form Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan.’


Al-Shafi’i learnt the Iraqi Fiqh in Baghdad as well as memorised the Ahadith that were known in Iraq, but not in Madinah or Hijaz. He also entered into debate with many scholars, speaking as a student of Imam Malik, but he would only debate with lesser scholars than Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani, whom he respected highly.


A point to note is that as a student of Imam Malik Al-Shafi’i was not supposed to take part in debates since Malik did not allow debate in his circle. But Imam Abe Haneefah imparted studies mainly through debates with his students. Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Al-Shaibani being a disciple of Abu Haneefah insisted Al-Shafi’i debate questions with him, to which he reluctantly yielded.


Perhaps the most important characteristic of Al-Shafi’i was his native intelligence that gave him an easy and good grasp of even the most difficult of questions. He always studied matters in depth, so as to arrive at the right verdict regarding any question put to him. His intelligence was coupled with a superb memory and ready argument. When he wanted to explain an idea, he would put it with a wealth of meanings that he always found ready to hand. He is not known to have been lost for words, yet his explanation was always rich and to the point.


Al-Shafi’i had a fine literary style, lucidity of expression and command over the language. His very clear delivery of words in a distinctive voice based on clarity of thought made him a powerful speaker. One of his students says: ‘Every scholar gives more in his books than when you meet him personally, except for Al-Shafi’i whose verbal discussion gives you more than his books.’


When one remembers that his books are among the finest in style, lucidity and presentation, one realises precisely what this student is talking about.


His knack for imparting knowledge together with his profound insight – a quality that he had in common with his teacher – made Al-Shafi’i an excellent teacher who should achieve the best results. Hence, his students were devoted to him.


Another quality that raised Al-Shafi’i to the highest rank of Islamic scholars was his unflagging dedication and sincerity in the pursuit of truth, and declaring it even if it was unpopular, or at variance with his teacher, to whom he was most devoted. His indebtedness to Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan, who had saved him from the Caliph’s wrath, did not prevent him from supporting the Madinan scholars’ views. No one ever accused him of rejecting true evidence.


To his students, his advice was to concentrate their time and efforts in studying the Hadith. He told them repeatedly if they found an authentic Hadith in conflict with his views, they should accept the Hadith.


Al-Shafi’i never lost his temper in debate because he was not interested in scoring points or winning, but in reaching the right conclusion. And if his opponent were right, he would not hesitate to accept his view. He is reported to have said: ‘I wish people would learn what I have to give, without it being attributed to me. In this way, I will receive the reward for it from my Lord, without having people’s praise.’

Endowed with such a character, there is no wonder that scholars placed Imam Muhammad ibn Idris Al-Shafi’i in the highest rank.


(by Adil Salahi, Impact International, UK - May 2001 issue pp 49 & 50)



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