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Hanafi Salafism: An Oxymoron?

Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad

category: Islamic Identity


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The Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence (madhabs) were formed over a thousand years ago at a time when shari'ah (Islamic law) was practiced and Islamic legal theory flourished. It was during this period that jurisprudence took shape as an Islamic science, flourishing as discussion and debate on controversial juristic issues became widespread.

With scholars spread throughout the Islamic lands, individual jurists would attempt to deal with the array of new customs and problems found in their own respective regions. As is inevitable, certain scholars would come to prominence, their knowledge illuminating others as well as setting a yardstick for jurists to come. Consequently, the reputation of certain jurists (fuqaha) would attract students, not only from that specific region but from across the Islamic world. Furthermore, scholars in agreement with the principles of the jurist would also join him so as to create a legal paradigm, this being the starting point for the formulation of the Schools of Thought. As the Schools multiplied, various juristic manuals were compiled, many a time the opinions of the jurist was noted and recorded by his students. Across the Islamic empire a number of scholars were renowned for their grasp of Islamic law and theological understanding, jurists such as Malik ibn Anas, Al Awza'i, Al Laith ibn Sa'd, Sufyan Al Thawri, and Abu Hanifah. Later generations included Muhammad ibn Hasan Al Shaibani, Abu Yusuf, Ibn Al Qasim, Al Shafi'i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

The schools of the early jurists came to be powerful institutions enriching the Islamic legal system providing it with many functions, one of these being the ability to deal with unprecedented issues from various angles allowing future jurists to deal with any given issue comprehensively regardless of time or place. However, a brief look into the history of the Schools of law clearly demonstrates that there have been periods in Islamic history where key protagonists belonging to various schools would instigate negative partisanship viewing the schools as ends in themselves rather than merely as a means to understand the Islamic sources of authority. As a result of this distorted outlook, the schools subsequently became institutions of disunity which in turn led to the stagnation of the Muslim ummah (nation) as the development of Islamic thought and law had now become nearly non-existent. This rigid view of the schools of thought led to many adherents viewing other schools with suspicion and reproach, and thus, the mutual understanding and open-mindedness that once existed in the formulative years had now been lost.

In contemporary times, such rigidity has continued whereby adherents of a school of law continue to treat others with suspicion even when there is a legitimate difference of opinion. This is seen no more so than in the staunch opposition found directed by the Madhabis (those who remain ardent in strictly adhering to one school of thought) towards the Salafis, viewing them with contempt although in reality there exists no grounds for doing so. Similarly, there are Salafis who incorrectly claim that the Hanafis have relegated the Qur'an and Sunnah below the sayings of Abu Hanifah – something which clearly demonstrates the Salafis' ignorance. The Madhabis have advocated a strict adherence to one school of Islamic law. The salafis on the other hand have tended to not to focus on schools of thought, but the sources of Islamic authority themselves. Misunderstandings on both sides have led to a sustained conflict between Salafism and Madhabism which is continuously exacerbated by ignorance, arrogance and insincerity.

This article is merely an attempt to bring about discussion between Salafis and Madhabis with the intention to instigate mutual understanding, unity, and the revival of Islamic thought.

We note firstly that both sides use terminology sparingly without the slightest inclination as to what these terms actually mean. Over time the usage of words tend to warp their meanings and we come to the point where two people use the same term yet argue two very different things. Thus it is clearly apparent that there needs to be some clarification as to the definitions of Salafism and Madhabism, whereby many disagreements take place due to ignorance of their defining characteristics. Aristotle once said, "How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms."

The most widespread school of thought in the world today is that of Imam Abu Hanifah (may Allah have mercy on him). The majority of British Muslims are also Hanafis given that most have a South Asian origin and South Asians are predominantly Hanafi. Yet, the term ‘Hanafi' proves to be allusive for many of those who ascribe themselves as such, since adherence to the Hanafi School of law can be in many different ways and its ambiguity raises the question as to whether ‘following' Abu Hanifah's jurisprudence means to adhere to the end result of his evidence-based reasoning (ijhtihad), or the actual methodology (usul) by which he arrived at a particular outcome.

In the same way, many Salafis are not entirely clear as to what Salafism entails, assuming that it is simply to follow the Qur'an and Sunnah – a problematic definition since it implies that others do not. There are none who claim that Abu Hanifah or any other great Imam for that matter did not adhere to the Qur'an and Sunnah - he (may Allah have mercy on him) was one of the four major Imams who have been accepted by the ummah. Thus, it is preposterous to assert, or even imply for that matter, that he disregarded the Islamic sources of Law, and likewise, it is also incorrect to claim that his understanding of Islam had detracted from the way of the Companions. Scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Al Qayyim who are widely accepted as having been major proponents of Salafism often quoted and endorsed many views of Abu Hanifah. Ibn Taymiyyah stated that many a time he would ask his opponents to prove whether he had ever contradicted the way and views of the first three generations of Muslims (which Abu Hanifah belonged to). Furthermore, Saudi Arabian scholars are characterized by many as the archetypal Salafis, yet they too endorse many distinctive opinions of Imam Abu Hanifah as they do other Imams. In fact, there is no single genuine Salafi who rejects the four schools of thought.

In examining the methodology of all the great Imams and scholars, we may conclude that they all had the same approach which can be summarized as follows:

  1. They consider the Qur'an and Sunnah as the eternal and infallible sources of legislation.
  2. They refer to Arabic language as the main tool to interpret the texts of legislation.
  3. They accept the consensus of the Ummah as binding and therefore they see it as a source of legislation.
  4. They strive to follow the truth insofar as they are able to.

There are a number of statements where the four Imams clearly state that in the case of incongruity between their opinions and a hadith, the hadith should always take precedence. A key Quranic instruction is the verse,

"O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority. (And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the Last Day. That is better and more suitable for final determination."[1]

Problems have occurred when both Madhabis and Salafis blindly and fanatically adhere to the injunctions of their respective Imams without considering the methodology that accompanies them. Consideration of these fundamental principles, the foundations upon which each Imam built his conclusion, should not be ignored. To illustrate this, we find that great scholars within each school would adopt opinions different to those of their respective Imams. For instance, Imam Abu Yusuf, one of the main students of Imam Abu Hanifah, opined as his teacher did with regards to the permissibility of trading in trusts/endowments (waqf). However, when he visited Madinah, Ismail ibn Ulayyah narrated to him that Umar ibn Al Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) gave away his shares in Khaibar (which were part of a trust/endowment) as charity and never sold them. Imam Abu Yusuf altered his position and said, ‘Had Imam Abu Hanifah known of this, he would have adopted it'.

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