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In the early development of Islamic Law, two broad schools developed, one was the “School of Hadith” exemplified by the early jurists of Western Arabia and later by Malik, and then by al-Shafi?i and Ahmad b. Hanbal. The other was the “School of Opinion” exemplified by the early jurists of Iraq and later by Abu Hanifah, Abu Yusuf, and Muhammad al-Shaybani.

Both schools recognized the authority of the Qur’an and Sunnah as the primary sources for Islamic teachings. They differed in how far personal opinion and juristic discretion could play a role in formulating Islamic Law. This led at times to bitter rivalry between the two schools, but this rivalry was overcome in a remarkable synthesis that left all the Islamic legal schools more robust than they were before. How did this happen?

The School of Hadith developed in the cradle of Islam, where the statements of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were well preserved, society had changed little since the Prophet’s time, culture was more homogeneous, and there was far less confusion and political turbulence

The primary figure in the School of Opinion was Abu Hanifah based in Kufah. He made the greatest contribution to this approach to Law. He was responding to the people’s needs in his locality where there were numerous new developments and a scarcity of reliable hadith knowledge. This demanded an increased emphasis on original thinking and juristic analogy (qiyas).

This brought him a fair share of criticism from people who were less broadminded than him and those who did not have to cope with the same kinds of problems. However, once the school was firmly established and its principles were clearly outlined, many of its detractors were won over. Even those who were not convinced were willing to concede that it was a viable approach. The vitriol that the school used to invoke almost ceased being heard. When we look at history, we see that this is the case with most new ideas. The same resistance took place in other academic disciplines, like legal theory, and even grammar.

Moreover, we should not underestimate Abu Hanifah’s regard for the Prophet’s hadith. Abu Hanifah said: “Whatever reaches us from Allah’s Messenger we accept without reservation. What reaches us from the Companions, we choose from it and do not depart from their opinions. As for what reaches us from the Successors, they are men like us. As for anything else, no reproach should be heard about it.”

Al-Hasan b. Ziyad al-Lu’lu’i relates that he heard Abu Hanifah say: “When we assert an opinion and declare it as such, this means that it is the best we were able to determine about the matter. If anyone else comes along with a better opinion, then it is more appropriate to regard his opinion as correct.”

Yahya b. Durays heard a man tell Sufyan al-Thawri that Abu Hanifah described his methodology to him as follows:

I take what I find in Allah’s Book. If I do not find anything there, then I refer to the Sunnah of Allah’s messenger. If I do not find anything in eutehr Allah’s Book or the Sunnah of Allah’s messenger, then I turn to the opinions of the Companions. I adopt from those opinions what I wish and leave aside what I wish, but I do not leave off their opinions altogether for the opinion of someone else. If I find nothing, or if I only have the opinions of (Successors) like Ibrahim, al-Sha`bi, Ibn Sirin, al-Hasan al-Basri, `Ata’, and Sa`id b. al-Musayyib, then these are counted as regular men. They exercised their best judgement, and I likewise do the same.

These, then, were the primary sources of law for Abu Hanifah. He was quite clear about the fact that his principle sources were two: the Quran and Sunnah. We understand that he also accepted any opinion that the Companions were unanimously agreed upon, but when they differed, he adopted the opinion that he deemed best, but he never departed from their opinions altogether.

On the other hand, when all he had were the opinions of the Successors, he was as qualified as they were to exercise his judgement. One of the Successors he mentioned in his statement above was Ibrahim al-Nakha`i who had been the teacher of his own teacher Hammad b. Abi Salamah. Al-Hasan b. Salih b. Hayy said: “Al-Nu`man b. Thabit was erudite, discerning, and well-grounded in his knowledge. Once he ascertained the authenticity of a hadith from the Prophet, he would not set it aside for anything else.”

This is what we have to assume about him and any other imam of his stature. They never disagreed about the Qur’an or about its clear meanings. They exercised their own judgement only in issues that required them to do so, where Allah has commanded us to do so. An inevitable consequence people exercising their judgement, of course, is a multiplicity of opinions. This is why `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz said: “I do not wish that the Prophet’s Companions had never disagreed. If that had been the case, there would be no leeway in the religion. They were leaders in faith for us to follow, and if a man adopts the opinion of any one of them, he is within his rights to do so.” May Allah bless Ahmad b. Hanbal for saying: “We used to curse the ‘School of Opinion’ and they used to curse us, and this remained the way things were until al-Shafi`i came along and brought us together.”

Al-Qadi `Iyad explains Ahmad’s statement as follows:

He means that he used to adhere strictly to authentic textual narrations and use them exclusively. Then al-Shafi`i showed them that they needed to exercise their opinion through the use of juristic reasoning and adopt legal rulings on that basis. Using qiyas to make an analogy between a ruling established by textual evidence and an unprecedented case is actually a way to us the text and apply it to a new situation. He showed them how to determine the rationale behind the existing ruling and identify where it could be found in various new legal questions. In this way, the adherents of the school of hadith learned that sound opinion is in the service of textual sources. Likewise, he showed the School of Opinion that since the exercise of legal reasoning is dependent upon the textual basis, there can be no opinion without it. The Sunnah and authentic narrations have to be given precedence.

Ishaq al-Rahawayh and others admitted that what Ahmad said had been the case for them as well, until they found themselves adopting Abu Hanifah’s views on a number of issues. This is the way of fair-minded people. When the truth becomes clear to them, they admit it and adopt it without hesitation.

When al-Shafi`i wrote the first-ever work on legal theory, al-Risalah, laying out the principles and approaches to legal reasoning and sound deduction, he cleared up a lot of confusion for everybody. He also put to rest a lot of the hostility and bickering that was taking place between the many and diverse legal schools which existed at the time. The plurality of schools – which had arisen in various parts of the Muslim world like Western Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Transoxiana – was a good thing in and of itself, making Islamic law more vigorous, responsive, and comprehensive. Circumstances varied in different parts of the Muslim world. Some areas were affluent while others were poor. Some were politically strong while others were weak. Some were cosmopolitan centres of knowledge while others were provincial and insular. Factors like these had an unmistakable affect on the thinking of the jurists who lived in those areas. They had to face different kinds of problems and had to address those problems within differing social contexts. as the Caliph `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz astutely observed: “People have problems and issues to the extent that they engage in wrongful activities.”





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