The Great Legist of Islam

His Life and Work

            Abu Hanifa Nu'man ibn Thabit was born at Kufa in the year 80 A.H. Very little is known about his father, Thabit, except that he was an Iranian in origin and a trader by profession. When he was forty years old his wife gave birth to a son who was named An-Nu'man. This happened during the reign of Abdul Malik ibn Marwan, the Ommayyah Caliph. Only a few of the Companions of the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) were then alive, e.g., Anas ibn Malik who died in the year 93 A.H., Sahl ibn Sa' who died in 91 A.H., and Abu Tufail who lived up to the year 100 A.H. Though Abu Hanifa saw Anas, it is not known that he overheard any tradition from anyone of those last of the Companions. He is, however, included among the Tabi'in.


            The period of Abu Hanifa's childhood was a period of great political tumult. Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the Ommayyah Governor of al-Iraq, was working havoc on all sides. Abdul Malik died in 86 A.H. and was followed by his son Valid. Hajjaj died in 95 A.H. and Valid followed him in 96 A.H. Sulaiman ibn Abdul Malik was next declared the Caliph. On his death, which took place in 99 A.H., Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (also known as Umar II) succeeded to the Caliphate. His reign was a just one in the true sense of the word. The atrocities of the early Ommayyah rulers and Governors gave place to a rule of law and order. Abu Hanifa could not attend to religious education on account of the unsettled political conditions up to the end of Valid's reign. He followed the vocation of his ancestors running a cloth factory successfully. In the reign of Sulaiman, when religious education received a fresh impetus, Abu Hanifa turned attention to it. One day he was accosted in a street by Imam Sha'bi who enquired from Abu Hanifa the name of his teacher in reply to which the latter said he was not receiving any teaching at the time. The great Imam advised Abu Hanifa to keep moving in the society of the learned. This greatly impressed Abu Hanifa and he forthwith turned to serious study.

Early Education

            Abu Hanifa selected as his first teacher the famous Hammad of Kufa, who had received his education in Hadith from Anas ibn Malik. For the next ten years Abu Hanifa sat at the feet of Hammad after which the teacher appointed him in his own place as a juris-consult whenever he had to go out of Kufa. Abu Hanifa now turned his attention to the acquirement of knowledge of Hadis and there was not a Muhadis of note in Kufa from whom he did not receive instruction. Among his teachers may be mentioned the names of Imam Sha'bi, Salma, Abu Ishaq, 'Awn ibn Abdullah, Hisham ibn 'Urwah, Sulaiman ibn Mahran, Qatada and Shu'ba. In spite of having gained knowledge of Hadis, from all these masters of learning, Abu Hanifa now felt the need of going to the Hijaz to complete his study of Hadis. On reaching Makkah he resorted to the presence of the great 'Ata ibn Rabi'ah who was then the greatest man of learning there. 'Ata ibn Rabi'ah had received instruction in Hadis from the great Companions of the Holy Prophet (upon whom be Peace) like Abdullah ibn 'Abbas, Usama ibn Zaid and Abu Hurairah. Abu Hanifa soon gained the favour of 'Ata who would always give him a prominent place in his company. 'Ata lived up to the year 115 A.H. and throughout this period whenever Abu Hanifa happened to go to Makkah he visited his teacher.

Visit to Madinah

            In the year 102 A.H. Abu Hanifa went to Madinah where he received instruction in Hadis from the master-minds of the Age - Sulaiman and Salim. The former was a slave of Maimuna, a wife of the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) and the latter a grandson of the great 'Umar. Though the sphere of Abu Hanifa's movement was limited to Madinah he also received instruction from the great teachers of other lands who gathered in the Holy Land during the Hajj season. Two of these teachers were the famous Imams Awza'I and Mak'hul.

Abu Hanifa and Imam Baqir

            When Abu Hanifa visited Madinah for the second time he met Imam Baqir who was so much impressed with his capabilities as a scholar of Muslim Law that he kissed his forehead. Abu Hanifa remained with the Imam for a long time and learnt much from him. He was fortunate enough to enjoy the company of Imam's son, Ja'far al-Sadiq also.

His Knowledge of Hadis

            By now Abu Hanifa was a man of great renown. Wherever he went crowds of seekers after truth gathered round him.

            Abu Hanifa had drawn the vast store of his knowledge of Hadis from as many as four thousand persons, but the distinctive peculiarity of his knowledge was not the large number of the Hadis he knew but the rules which he had framed to judge the authenticity of the same.

Critical Examination of Hadis

            He fully realised that the greater the distance of a narrator of a Hadis from the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) the greater was the possibility of a change in the wording thereof. His critical examination of Hadis was, therefore, very severe and this raised his status as a Muhaddis. It was chiefly on this account that there was a public demand for his appointment as the successor of his teacher, Hammad, when the latter died in the year 120 A.H. Abu Hanifa, who was now forty years old, took to his new profession in right earnest. Soon the other centres of learning in Kufa were being abandoned and all students of religion were flocking to Abu Hanifa's school. Even his former teachers would come and hear him ardently. There was not a place in the whole of the Islamic world besides Spain that did not send some of its representatives to attend Abu Hanifa's discourses in Kufa. These students came from all quarters - from Makkah and Madinah, from Damascus and Basrah, from Musal and Nisibis, from Isfahan and Astarabad, from Hamadan and Nehavand, from Bukhara and Samarqand, from Rey and Tabaristan, from Nishapur and Khwarizm, from Sistan and Mada'in. In fact, the sphere of his influence coincided with the boundaries of the Caliphate.

The Abbasis

            In the year 132 A.H. the Ummayyah rule came to an end and the Abbasis occupied their place. The earlier caliphs of this dynasty committed horrible crimes of cruelty with the result that a great agitation against them raged in the different parts of the Empire. The House of 'Ali was persecuted beyond all bounds with the result that the Nafs-i-Zakiyyah declared rebellion in Madinah. He was, however, killed after a very brave fight. His brother, Ibrahim, continued the fight against the Abbasis and from all sides of the Empire people accepted him as the rightful caliph. Leaders of religious thought joined him in large numbers. When in 135 A.H. Ibrahim declared himself Caliph, Abu Hanifa along with others joined him. He ardently desired to join Ibrahim on the battlefield also but could not, to his lifelong regret, do so owing to some unavoidable circumstances. He, however, helped Ibrahim in every possible way. Ibrahim was killed in a battle at Basrah and Mansur, the Abbasi Caliph, having disposed of him, turned his attention to his companions of whom Abu Hanifa undoubtedly was one. On reaching Baghdad, Mansur sent an order to Abu Hanifa, who was then in Kufa, to come to his presence. Abu Hanifa was presented to Mansur as the greatest living man of learning and on hearing the names of his great teachers Mansur offered him the office of Qadi. Abu Hanifa refused office at which Mansur was very much upset. The great Imam of the Age was put in the prison in the year 146 A.H. and remained there until his death. People flocked to hear him even in the prison. His eminent pupil, Imam Muhammad, had all his education from Abu Hanifa in the prison.

Abu Hanifa's Death

            Mansur now lost his temper over the ever-increasing popularity of Abu Hanifa as a great religious teacher. So he got the Imam poisoned in the year 150 A.H. Abu Hanifa felt the effect of the poison and fell in prostration and died there and then. No less than 50,000 people are reported to have offered his funeral prayer in the first instance and the prayer was repeated six times. He was buried at Baghdad. Sultan Alp Arsalan Saljuki erected a vast building around his tomb in the year 459 A.H. and opened a school of religious learning there. A staff of eminent teachers was appointed and the school was long reputed as the Mash'had-i-Abu Hanifa. There was also an inn attached to this school for travellers.

His Descendants

            Abu Hanifa left only one issue - the famous Hammad named after his famous teacher. He was a man of great learning and piety and lived up to 176 A.H. Today, besides his material descendants, now less than sixty million spiritual followers of Abu Hanifa are living in the world.

Personal Characteristics

            The character of Abu Hanifa may be judged from the description of his great pupil, Abu Yusuf, which he gave to the famous Abbasi Khalifa, Harun al-Rashid. The Imam is reported to have said: "As far as I know he was a highly pious man, who avoided the undesirable things. He usually kept quiet, and was very generous in his actions. He never took requests to anybody. He avoided the men of the world. He looked down upon worldly power and avoided backbiting. Whenever he talked of anybody he talked well of him. He was a man of great learning. In imparting knowledge to others he was a generous as in giving away wealth.

            Abu Hanifa was endowed both with physical charm and intellectual qualities. His stature was tall, his body well-built and proportionate. His conversation was sweet and his voice was loud and clear. His speech was always logical and convincing. He dressed carefully.

His Attitude Towards Rulers

            Abu Hanifa refused favours from the ruling classes and was thus able to utter the truth in the presence of the highest personalities of the age. Once there occurred a rift between Mansur and his wife, Hurrah Khatun. Mansur proposed to her to appoint a judge between himself and her. She named Abu Hanifa, who was forthwith called to the royal presence. The Queen sat behind a curtain to hear the talk of the Imam. Mansur asked him how many wives a man could marry at a time according to the law of the Shari'ah. The Imam said: "Four, but this permission is for him who can do justice between them. Otherwise one wife is to be preferred." Mansur was silenced. The Imam came home and immediately there arrived a messenger from the royal lady with fifty thousand dirhams and a message of goodwill from her. The Imam returned the money saying that he declared the truth for its own sake and not to gain the goodwill of anybody.

Means of His Livelihood

            Abu Hanifa was a great trader. He had agents in many big towns and maintained a large establishment in his cloth factory. He was scrupulously honest in his commercial dealings and was very particular in ensuring that no unjust profit entered his cash box. Once he supplied a large stock of cloth which contained some soiled pieces and sent a message to his agent to the effect that those pieces should be shown to the buyers before disposal. The agent did not do so. When the Imam came to know of this he gave away in charity the whole of the money realised in the transaction which amounted to no less than thirty thousand dirhams. His honesty and straightforwardness brought enormous wealth to Abu Hanifa. His business in cloth prospered immensely.

Abu Hanifa's Generosity

            Abu Hanifa was very generous. He regularly supported Shaikhs and students in large numbers. He helped the poor in paying off their debts to the extent of thousand of dirhams. With all his wealth and influence and generosity he was humble in his behaviour towards others and highly tolerant. Once a man is reported to have declared in the course of the Imam's discourse to a large gathering that he had made a wrong statement. Abul Khattab Jurjuni, who was one of the audience, was much disturbed and declared that the Imam's pupils, who tolerated such an insult to their teacher, were shameless creatures. There was general confusion in the gathering, but Abu Hanifa said: "They are not to blame. I am sitting here to be reproached for any mistakes that I make and to hear these things with a cool mind."

Respect for His Mother

            Abu Hanifa's mother, who survived her husband, was a great believer in the intellectual superiority of a famous lecturer, Umar ibn Zar. Whenever she wanted to know the dictates of the Shari'ah relating to a problem she would ask Abu Hanifa to go to that lecturer. That gentleman always felt embarrassed in advising Abu Hanifa in matters of Islamic Law and would hesitate to open his mouth. But Abu Hanifa would say: "I am commanded by my mother and must obey her command."

Daily Activities

            Abu Hanifa was much devoted to prayer in which he took real interest. He would often weep for hours on end while reading the Holy Qur'aan or while saying his prayers. On many occasions he passed the whole night in repeating a single verse of that Divine Book. He was in the habit of giving religious instruction to the congregation in a mosque after the morning prayer. Then he would attend to his correspondence received from far off lands in which unknown people asked for his advice. Then he joined the gathering of eminent scholars where legal discussions took place. The decisions of this gathering were immediately put into black and white. After the noon prayer he would go home and during the summer, take a nap. After the afternoon prayer he would devote some time to teaching work and then go out to see his friends, enquiring after the health of the sick and helping the poor the teaching working was resumed and continued until the night prayer.

Abu Hanifa's Place

            Abu Hanifa holds in the field of Islamic Law the same position as Aristotle in Logic or Euclid in Geometry. He was a thinker of the highest order and criticised the greatest authorities of the day. He would not spare even his teachers. He was, therefore, naturally not in the good books of many. Abu Hanifa's intellectual acumen, contentment and piety placed him far above most of the great men of learning among his contemporaries.

His Works

            Abu Hanifa is said to be the author of the following books: (1) Fiqh al-Akbar; (2) Al-'Alim wal-Muta'llim and (3) the Musnad. But no authentic work of his is extant.

His Achievements

            1. Although the main sphere of Abu Hanifa's activities was Jurisprudence he struck decidedly new ground in the domain of 'Ilm al-Kalam also. He did not believe that action formed a part of belief. He used to say: "He who believes and does good is a man of paradise; he who does good but does not believe is a kafir; he who believes but does not do good is a sinful Muslim.

            2. Hadith. It is an undisputed fact that Abu Hanifa was primarily a mujtahid and not a muhaddis. He was, therefore, concerned more with those traditions which pertained to legal matters than with the others. Yet it is decidedly wrong to say that he was not at all concerned with Hadith. We have shown that he received teachings in Hadis from many of the greatest men of learning of his day. He is universally known as a mujtahid and obviously to attain this distinction a man must be well versed in Hadith. Abu Hanifa, in fact, was something greater than a muhaddis. He was a great critic of Hadith literature and laid down rules and regulations to judge the real position of an individual tradition. No doubt the principles laid down by him were very strict. The reason for this attitude of his is obvious. Up to his time the narrators of Hadith did not care much about the words of a tradition; they simply tried to relate the subject in their own words. It was, therefore, incumbent upon a man, who was laying down the foundations of a grand structure of law, to be very careful in receiving traditions from others. It is thus evident that Abu Hanifa was not lacking in the knowledge of traditions, but no doubt he used very few of them - in fact, only those which conformed to the strict rules of criticism laid down by him.

            3. Fiqh. It was in the year 120 A.H. that Abu Hanifa thought of propounding a system of jurisprudence. He organised a committee of about forty eminent scholars from among his pupils to lay down the system and this work took some thirty years to complete. A question of law was put to this august assembly which consisted of the greatest contemporary authorities on all the various branches of religious learning - tafsir, hadith, fiqh, adab, nahv, philosophy, logic, etc. If a unanimous decision came forth it was at once put into black and white. If not, the problem was discussed thoroughly and everybody in the assembly expressed his views on the subject frankly. After giving a patient hearing to the arguments of all Abu Hanifa gave his well considered opinion which was recorded. Sometimes members of this assembly maintained their differences even after Abu Hanifa had announced his decision. Such differences were also recorded. One of the basic principles on which this assembly worked was that no legal point was to be decided unless all the members were present.

Popularity of Abu Hanifa's
Legal Opinions

            The collection of legal decisions of the above assembly soon gained popularity in all quarters. Even Abu Hanifa's opponents had to consult that collection. Unfortunately his collection is not extant. One probable reason of this is that Abu Hanifa's two pupils, Muhammad and Abu Yusuf, wrote exhaustive compendiums of law based on their teacher's collection and the availability of these compendiums resulted in the collection of Abu Hanifa falling into disuse.


            The store of juristic knowledge which is now known as Fiqh-i-Hanafi is in fact the work of four great masters of Fiqh, viz., Abu Hanifa, Zufar, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad. The last two have views different from the teacher's on many matters, and they have given expression to their views frankly. The school of Hanafi law spread throughout the Muslim world. Most of the ruling classes in the different countries of the Islamic world came under the influence of this school of law.

Popularity of Hanafi Fiqh

            The question naturally arises as to what was the cause of the Hanafi school of Fiqh gaining ground to a greater extent than any other. Surely the founders of the other schools of Fiqh were more advantageously placed as compared with Abu Hanifa. The only obvious reason of his popularity is that the Hanafi School alone was conversant with the demands of a higher cultural life. The other schools were confined to the limits of culturally backward countries. The founder of the Hanafi School, besides being a man of the world. He understood the needs of cultured life so well. Having been an adviser to all in legal matters he had a very wide experience of a legal nature. High government officials, even the Khalifa himself, consulted him in such matters.

Characteristics of Hanafi Fiqh

            The first characteristic of this school is that it is based on the principle that every injunction of the Shari'ah is based on reason. Consequently the findings of the exponents of this school are always rational. The Holy Qur'aan, whenever it exhorts its readers to do or not to do a thing, gives reasons for that injunction or prohibition. Abu Hanifa firmly believed in this principle and based all his opinions on it. Another characteristic of the Hanafi School is its practicability. For a man who follows the Hanafi School life is easy as compared with the followers of other schools of Fiqh. The Hanafi School gives the greatest freedom of action to a sincere believer. It provides guidance in every sphere of civilised life. In this respect the Hanafi School is the most significant of all the schools of Fiqh, for it deals with all kinds of social matters and national and international questions of all kinds. Again, the Hanafi School grants the largest amount of concessions to the zimmis or loyal non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic State. For example, according to the Hanafi law a Muslim, guilty of murdering a zimmis, is liable to be punished with death. Similarly, the Hanafi law allows the zimmis full freedom in matters of trade and other professions. Their affairs which concern themselves are to be decided according to their own religious laws.






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