Citation for Madhāhib

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Hussin, Iza . "Madhāhib." In The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jul 12, 2020. <>.


Hussin, Iza . "Madhāhib." In The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jul 12, 2020).



Islamic jurisprudence developed from about a century after the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 632, with the result that the great majority of Muslims belong to one of a number of madhāhib (movements, schools of Islamic legal doctrine). The Sunnī madhāhib (sing. madhhab) emerged in the ninth and tenth centuries, giving form to the legal thought and legacy of particular authoritative figures or communities of the eighth and ninth centuries. This occurred after the schism between the followers of the Prophet’s Companions (ahl al-sunnah wa-l-jamāʿa, the people of tradition and community) and the followers of the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin ʿAlī (shīʿat ʿAlī, in short Shīʿa, the partisans of ʿAlī) over the question of political succession after the Prophet’s death. This led to the emergence of the Shīʿī madhāhib, which is identified with various imams. For example, the Imāmī, or Twelver, school of law, which encompasses most Shiites, emerged after the Occultation of the twelfth imam in 941.

The implications of the difference between the Sunnīs and Shiites over the question of succession extended to the development of schools of law, since the Sunnīs did not develop a clerical hierarchy with clear authority to pronounce and interpret law, whereas the Shiites did. It became the role of master jurists (sing. mujtahid) to articulate the doctrine and scholarship of the madhāhib for both jurists and lay Muslims to follow. Sunnī judicial authority was built gradually by generations of scholars around multiple centers, both geographic and personal. Sunnī madhāhib were organized first around particular locales and then around prominent scholars. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Mālikī school (named after Mālik ibn Anas, d. 795), the Ḥanafī school (named after Abū Ḥanīfa, d. 767), the Shāfiʿī school (named after Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī, d. 820), the Ḥanbalī school (named after Ahmad ibn Ḥanbal, d. 855), and the Ẓāhirī school (which followed Dāʾūd ibn Khalaf, d. 883) represented distinct schools of thought and jurisprudence. By the twelfth century, almost all jurists had aligned themselves with the doctrine of a particular school.

These schools also came to dominate in different geographic regions—the Mālikī in North Africa, the Ḥanafī in South and Central Asia, the Shāfiʿī in Egypt and Southeast Asia, and the Ḥanbalī in North and Central Arabia (for the demise of the Ẓāhirī school, see below). Together, the Sunnī madhāhib encompass most Muslims today, and although they differ on matters of doctrine, method, and substantive law, they recognize each other’s validity and have continued to interact in legal debate and discourse.

Development of the Schools of Law.

The sources of jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh) for the Sunnī madhāhib are the Qurʾān, Sunnah (authoritative custom of the Prophet), ijmāʿ (consensus of the jurists), and qiyās (analogical reasoning). Despite the principle of mutual recognition, the Sunnī madhāhib differed in, and continued to be elaborated on the basis of, their approach to the authoritative sources of law, their methods of interpretation of those sources, their stance on the permissibility of applying human reasoning in jurisprudence, and their substantive rulings on specific local problems in law. Within each school there existed multiple ethnic, regional, intellectual, and scholarly variations, and a large part of the tradition of the madhāhib involves scholarly debates and disagreement over matters of substantive law and legal philosophy.

The Mālikī school of law, also known as the school of Medina or the school of the Hejaz, counts within its fold some of the first to follow the Prophet Muḥammad, such as his wife Āʾisha and the second caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb. Accordingly, the school’s rules emphasize the customs and practices of the people of Medina and the early Companions of the Prophet. Mālik’s al-Muwaṭṭaʾ (‘The Well-Trodden Path’) is itself a compilation of traditions of the Prophet, the Companions, and the early Medinan Muslims, and his jurisprudence relied explicitly on these. This reliance on Sunnah, or custom, and not on authoritative ḥadīth until a later period, has also meant that Mālikī opinion on some matters reflected the practice of the time. Thus, on the personal status of women, it required a male guardian to consent to a woman’s marriage and gave male guardians the right to contract marriages without the woman’s consent. Mālikī influence spread from the Hejaz to Andalusia and North Africa because of contacts established during the ḥājj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and it replaced the Ẓāhirī school in these places under the patronage of the Umayyad dynasty. The Mālikī school is still dominant in these areas, as well as in many states of the Arabian Gulf.

The Ḥanafī school, originating in Kūfa (Iraq), combined an emphasis on human reasoning with a preference for the autonomy of the individual believer, which resulted in an approach to law that has widely been seen as the most liberal of the schools of law. The Ḥanafī madhhab was the first to develop rules on the performance of contracts. Its concepts of qiyās and istiḥsān (preference), which allowed pragmatic considerations to be a basis of jurisprudence, served to broaden the foundations on which Islamic law could rest. In this school, the autonomy of the Muslim individual extended to granting adult women the right to contract marriages for themselves (without the consent of a male guardian). The initial prominence of the Ḥanafī school can be traced to its elaboration by key actors in the ʿAbbāsid state who were students of Abū Ḥanīfa, in particular, by Abū Yūsuf (d. 798) and Muḥammad al-Shaybānī (d. 804). Later it became the dominant school in both the Mughal and Ottoman empires, and today it covers the broadest swath of the world’s Muslim regions, from China to the Levant.

Al-Shāfiʿī, one of Mālik’s students, embraced in his legal doctrines a synthesis between the traditionalism of the Mālikīs and the rationalism of the Ḥanafīs (see below). His treatise, Kitab al-Umm (‘The Basic Book’), contains both the positive rules of his school and comparisons with the other schools of law, and it elaborates al-Shāfiʿī’s insistence upon the traditionalist approach in matters of legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh). The Shāfiʿī madhhab became prominent in Egypt with the rise of the Ayyūbids and later the Mamlūks, is dominant in Southeast Asia, and has significant numbers of adherents in South Asia, Iran, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and the Hejaz.

Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, a student of al-Shāfiʿī, compiled more than forty thousand traditions of the Prophet and his Companions in his Musnad. This traditionalism is reflected in the Ḥanbalī definition of legal theory as containing five sources of law, arranged in order of priority: the Qurʾān and Sunna, fatwas of the Companions, narrations by individual Companions, traditions with weaker chains of transmission (isnād), and analogy (qiyās). Taking a strong stance against the rationalist doctrine that the Qurʾān was created, rather than eternal, Ibn Ḥanbal defied the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn despite torture and imprisonment during the miḥna (the inquisition of Baghdad, from 833 to 861). Always the smallest of the four Sunnī madhāhib, two followers of the Ḥanbalī school, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1327) and Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792), have been credited with its revival in more recent times. The jurisprudence of the Wahhābiyya movement rejects later scholarship and opinion in favor of such sources as the Qurʾan, Sunnah, and a vision of a pure Islam from the time of the Prophet. It has gained popularity as a form of global Islamic reformism, being associated in particular with Saudi Arabia. The Ḥanbalī madhhab is also dominant in Qatar and parts of Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.

Traditionalism and Rationalism.

The Ḥanbalī and Shāfiʿī madhāhib have been known as traditionalist, and its members as “followers of ḥadīth” (ahl al-ḥadīth), in contrast with the Ḥanafīs, who have been called rationalists and “followers of opinion” (ahl al-raʾy). In the writings of Mālik ibn Anas, the practice of the Medinan Muslims represented the most authoritative tradition (sunnah). The Ẓāhirī madhhab rejected all human opinion and analogical reasoning as a valid tool in jurisprudence in favor of the “literal” (ẓāhir) meanings of revealed text. Both the most rationalist of the ahl al-raʾy (the Muʿtazilī movement of theologians) and the most literalist of the ahl al-ḥadīth (the Ẓāhirīs) eventually declined in prominence, the latter being no longer considered a madhhab, although their approaches to law continue to exert influence.

Al-Shāfiʿī himself played a major role in the development of the madhhab, his synthesis of the traditionalist and rationalist approaches to law providing both the systematic basis for the elaboration of rules and the theoretical foundations on which later scholars could build. Al-Shāfiʿī placed these sources in a hierarchy of four. He prioritized (1) the Qurʾān and (2) the Sunnah of the Prophet when transmitted by an authoritative chain of narrators (isnād), defined (3) ijmāʿ as the consensus of scholars, and replaced raʾy (human opinion) with the more constrained (4) qiyās (human reasoning that drew analogies between existing rules and new situations for law). Such followers of al-Shāfiʿī as Abu al-Abbas ibn Surayj (d. 918) taught his texts and methods and trained generations of important scholars, who in turn further established the techniques and legitimacy of this madhhab throughout much of the Muslim world.

Political Implications of the Madhāhib.

Scholars affiliated with a madhhab were often supported by a private endowment (waqf). Such endowments funded colleges of higher Islamic learning (sing. madrasa) where scholars were trained in law and where debate was fostered. The madhāhib thus became institutionalized within regimes, supplying judges, jurists, and other legal officials who acted both for the state and independently. The madhāhib became recognized both as bodies of legal doctrine and interpretation and as communities of scholars of law and religion.

The relationship between scholars of Islamic law and the political power of the state has involved, at least since the ʿAbbāsid period, a delicate balancing act: it was the scholar (ʿulamāʾ, sing. ʿālim, henceforth, ulema) who interpreted the texts and made authoritative laws pronounced by the state, and it was adherence to and propagation of the law that made the state Islamic. The institutionalization of the legal schools and their affiliation with ruling regimes led to pressures to conform to earlier opinions and traditions within each school, but also to the development of legal doctrine to respond to new challenges. While later legal scholarship in each madhhab did tend to lean on commentaries on existing texts, which led to increasing doctrinal deference to established madhhab opinion (taqlīd), each madhhab also had mechanisms by which new legal ideas were authorized and legitimized. The Ḥanafī madhhab, for example, developed the concept of juristic preference (istihsān) beyond the four foundational sources of law.

Some Muslim imperial states favored particular madhāhib and extended their reach over localities that had previously been dominated by other schools. The ʿAbbāsids and Ottomans favored the Ḥanafī school—hence its large geographic spread. Efforts by Ḥanafī scholars to develop a jurisprudence with clear hierarchies among opinions and increasing standardization of doctrine lent their school to state administration and the extension of imperial power. The articulation of Ottoman or other imperial law over Muslim subjects of a different madhhab itself required new techniques and theories to reconcile multiple systems or prioritize the imperial madhhab. The needs of the state and calls for reform in Islamic law also occasioned new kinds of exchanges between the madhāhib. Thus, the methods of talfīq (“patching” rules from different madhāhib together) and takhayyur (“choosing” to apply rules from different madhāhib) came into common use. The Ottomans in 1876 codified portions of Ḥanafī law relating to contracts, procedures, and torts in the Mejelle (civil code), and in 1917 promulgated a family law based upon an amalgamation of doctrines of marriage, divorce, and personal status from various madhāhib.

Colonial and Contemporary Times.

European colonialism and the development of modern states, with their near-monopoly on law-making and jurisdiction, have posed serious challenges to the juristic integrity of the madhāhib and their influence on legal practice. European colonial powers often sponsored and supported the translation of particular texts of Islamic law and extended their application to all areas under their jurisdiction, to the exclusion of other texts and interpretations, thus contributing to a sense of Islamic law as being rigid and unchanging. One example of this development was the nineteenth-century English translation and use of Al-Hidāya (divine guidance), by Burhān al-Dīn al-Farghānī al-Marghīnānī (d. 1196), as a textbook of Ḥanafī law in British India—a text that excised ambiguities from the original text and in many cases replaced local experts with the letter of the law as taken from the Anglo-Muḥammadan Hedaya.

The reorganization of Islamic legal institutions, including the institutions of learning and adjudication that housed scholars of Islamic law, and their incorporation into the colonial state had profound implications for the modern development of the madhhab system. Some, such as the Deoband school in India, which followed Ḥanafī law, have developed in competition and cooperation with the modernizing state, while others have seen their influence wane as the institutions and resources on which they relied became marginalized and replaced by state administration. The madhāhib have also faced the challenge of adapting doctrine to new issues that face increasingly mobile communities of Muslims, with the result that global issues of immigration, communications, and other problems have transformed the regional character of the madhhab.

While the madhāhib continue to find expression in the national legal systems of many Muslim states, their jurisdiction, with a few notable exceptions (such as Saudi Arabia), has been limited mostly to the domain of personal status, family law, and some areas of ritual practice. In addition, national laws and state legal institutions have exercised increasing amounts of control over legal interpretation, with non-Sharīʿa-trained judges, lawyers, and policymakers taking over the domain of the Sharīʿa scholar in the elaboration of law, and the state legal academy encroaching on the domain of the Islamic scholar in the development of legal theory. In the contemporary period, national legal practice and state law, rather than the madhhab, have come to determine much of Muslim legal practice, and the influence of the madhāhib in each jurisdiction depends on the position of local ulema and Islamic institutions in the national system. Some ulema, such as those in Indonesia, have responded with calls for a new, national madhhab, while others rely less on the formal doctrine of a particular madhhab and more on the formulation of new rules based on the Qurʾān and Sunnah alone.

Islamic movements that are global, rather than nation-state focused, have drawn upon various madhāhib to appeal to Muslims worldwide, often characterizing local practices as “impure” Islam and offering an interpretation of Islam based strictly on the Qurʾān and Sunnah. The Ḥanbalī madhhab in particular has been represented as a version of Islam whose strong adherence to the Sunnah of the Prophet offers an antidote to both impure local Islamic traditions and the ills of modernization and Westernization. This variant of Ḥanbalī practice has been labeled, often pejoratively, as Wahhabism because of its perceived sponsorship by Saudi Arabia. Other movements, such as networks of ulema based in Indonesia who belong to the Shāfiʿī school but distance themselves from the doctrine of Indonesian state-based ulema, and some scholars based in the United States and other non-Muslim-majority states, offer a liberal interpretation of Islamic law aimed at solving problems faced by contemporary Muslims without the focus on the jurisprudence of a particular madhhab or region.



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Iza Hussin

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