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Abbasid Dynasty, Role in Law

Mathieu Tillier
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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Abbasid Dynasty, Role in Law

The Abbasids (750–1258 C.E.) seized power after a “revolution” that broke out in Khorāsān (Eastern Iran) in 747, under the leadership of Abū Muslim, and defeated the armies of the Umayyad caliph Marwan II. In 749, Abū l-ʿAbbās al-Saffāḥ, a descendant of one of the Prophet’s uncles, was proclaimed caliph in Kufa (Iraq). The new dynasty settled in Iraq, first in various localities collectively known as al-Hāshimiyya and later in Baghdad, the new capital founded in 762 by the second Abbasid caliph, al-Manṣūr (r. 754–775).

Umayyad rule had been much contested during the first part of the eighth century, and the Abbasid caliphs, who belonged to the highly esteemed family of the Prophet, claimed to be restoring justice abused by the previous dynasty, whom they spurned as illegitimate and impious. It is possible that some sort of legal reform was expected from the new dynasty. According to the chancellery secretary Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. ca. 757), who warned al-Manṣūr about several problems of the time in his Risāla fī l-ṣaḥāba, legal diversity was dividing the Islamic realm, including Iraq itself.

The Issue of Legal Codification

Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ proposed to remedy this legal diversity by the codification of Islamic law. The caliph would promulgate a unique legal code and would impose its application on all the judges (qāḍīs) of the empire. According to later sources, al-Manṣūr asked the Medinese jurist Mālik b. Anas (the eponym of the Mālikī school, d. 795) to write such a code, but Mālik refused. Benjamin Jokisch (2007, Islamic Imperial Law) recently argued that codification was eventually enforced under Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809), who might have commissioned a translation of the byzantine Corpus Iuris Civilis into Arabic—this translation being at the core of Ḥanafī doctrine. However, this hypothesis remains highly speculative, and the history of the judiciary shows that legal unity was never achieved.

Development of the Judiciary

One of the major reforms undertaken by al-Manṣūr was the centralization of the judiciary, which had previously been primarily under the authority of the provincial governors. The caliph began to appoint qāḍīs himself from the year 757, initially in Iraqi towns and later in the other provinces. As a result of this reform, the qāḍīs became direct representatives of the caliph, and the governors lost a substantial amount of their power. Over the next few decades, several governors took advantage of the cyclical weaknesses of the central government to regain control of the qāḍī appointment process, and the caliph was unable to maintain lasting control over their appointment until after the civil war between the caliph al-Amīn and his ultimately victorious brother al-Ma’mūn and the latter’s return to Baghdad in 819.

In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, however, the authority of the caliphs was questioned again. Governors of autonomous provinces like Ṭūlūnid (868–905) and Ikhshīdid (933–969) Egypt extended their authority over judgeship. In Baghdad, the political weakening of the caliphs allowed their viziers to appoint qāḍīs in the early tenth century. As from 936, the chief amirs to whom the caliph al-Rāḍī had ultimately entrusted the financial administration of the state regularly attempted to take over the judiciary.

The creation of the office of the chief qāḍī by the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd around the year 790 was the most visible symbol of judicial reform. Officially, this chief judge did not have full control over the appointment of judges, but he had decisive influence over the choices made by the caliph. The chief qāḍī enjoyed increasing influence until the end of the miḥna (the inquisition by which the caliph tried to impose his authority on private scholars). After the victory of Sunni orthodoxy under al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861), the institution of the chief qāḍī declined for good.

The Judiciary and Legal Unification

The centralization of the judiciary has been interpreted as part of a wider program of legal unification—especially under the (proto-)Ḥanafī current. Up until then, the qāḍīs had usually been chosen from amongst the learned elite of each city, and would base their rulings upon local interpretation of the law. The first two Abbasid caliphs mainly favored Medinese jurists, and from the reign of al-Mahdī (r. 775–785) onwards, the qāḍīs of Baghdad were mainly drawn from amongst the disciples of Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 767). The first chief qāḍī, Abū Yūsuf (d. 798), was his most famous student, and his influence undoubtedly helped to spread the Ḥanafī current far and wide. Not all the qāḍīs appointed in other cities were Ḥanafīs, however. Cities like Basra in Iraq or Fustāt in Egypt resisted the dissemination of Ḥanafī doctrine until the early ninth century and insisted to have local jurists appointed as qāḍīs on their communities. Even in Kufa, the home town of Abū Ḥanīfa, qāḍīs were still recruited from among the rival local circle of Ibn Abī Laylā until the reign of al-Amīn (r. 809–813), and parts of Baghdad remained under a strong Mālikī influence. After Abū Yūsuf’s death, Hārūn al-Rashīd’s chief qāḍī was Abū l-Bakhtarī, a Medinese jurist who was certainly closer to the (proto-)Mālikīs. It appears that the centralization of the judiciary meant first and foremost a reinforcement of caliphal authority rather than the consistent empowerment of one legal school. All justice was now supposed to come from the caliph.

Abbasid Impact on Law

Even though no legal unification occurred, the political support enjoyed by the Ḥanafīs had a profound impact on the evolution of Islamic law. Thanks to the favor they enjoyed with rulers, the Ḥanafīs attracted an increasing number of disciples who hoped to pursue a career in the judicial system, and their current spread in the empire. This led eventually to the formation of a large school that absorbed other Iraqi legal currents (Ibn Abī Laylā’s, a part of Basra’s current, etc.). One of the main consequences of the Abbasids’ policy was the emergence of a fixed written body of legal literature. According to al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) Ḥanafī jurists were authors of books, the reading of which was the best training to become a judge. Ḥanafī treatises of legal formulas (shurūṭ) were especially famous, and the spread of Ḥanafism in Egypt had a deep impact on notarial practices (see Khan, 1994). Rival legal currents had to adapt to the challenge posed by the Ḥanafīs; while some developed into more structured schools, like the Mālikīs, others eventually disappeared (such as al-Awzāʿī’s current) or merged with a stronger school (such as the Egyptian school with the Mālikīs, then with the Shāfiʿīs).

In their search for legitimacy, the Abbasids looked for a strong legal basis, and their politics had a major influence on the formation of “personal” or “doctrinal” schools of law. Paradoxically, their efforts to use jurists as political tools eventually undermined their power. Within the new growing schools, law was still elaborated by private scholars. However, many scholars rejected the methods of these schools (especially of the Ḥanafī), whom they reproached for their use of human reasoning and of personal opinion (raʾy). The movement of ahl al-ḥadīth promoted other methods, based exclusively on the corpus of traditions transmitted from the Prophet and the first generations of believers. By claiming a religious and legal authority based on their knowledge of these traditions, they soon appeared as a threat to the caliphal authority, and the failure of the miḥna permanently consolidated the jurists’ independency within the classical schools of law.


  • Jokisch, Benjamin. Islamic Imperial Law: Harun-Al-Rashid’s Codification Project. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.
  • Khan, Geoffrey. “The Pre-Islamic Background of Muslim Legal Formularies.” Aram 6 (1994): 193–224.
  • Melchert, Christopher. The Formation of the Sunni Schools of Law, 9th–10th Centuries c.e. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997.
  • Tillier, Mathieu. Les cadis d’Iraq et l’État abbasside, 132/750–334/945. Damascus, Syria: IFPO, 2009.
  • Tsafrir, Nurit. The History of an Islamic School of Law: The Early Spread of Hanafism. Cambridge, Mass.: Islamic Legal Studies Program, Harvard Law School, 2004.
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