Imam Shafi’i is one of the four greats imams whose legacy on judicial matters and teachings led to the Shafi’i School of Fiqh (jurisprudence).
He was born in the Palestinian city of Gaza in 767 CE. Named Mohammad Ibn Idris upon birth, Imam Shafi’i descended from the Hashemi family of the Quraish tribe to which the last and final Messenger Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) belonged.
Imam Shafi’i’s ancestral chain consists of the following links: Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Idris Ibn Abbas Ibn Uthman Ibn Shafi’i Ibn Saa’ib Ibn Ubayd Ibn Abd Yazeed Ibn Hashim Ibn Muttalib Ibn Abd Munaf Qurayshi Muttalibi Hashimi.
The father of Imam Shafi’i died in Ash-Sham while he was still a child. After the death of his father, Imam Shafi’i mother moved to Makkah, when Imam Shafi’i was only two years old.
His maternal family roots were from Yemen and there were also some family members in Makkah, where his mother believed and hoped that he would be taken good care of.
Imam Shafi’i spent his formative years in Makkah and acquired religious education in the cities of Makkah and Madinah.
He grew up amongst the Banu Huzayl tribe in Makakh which in conformity with many Arab tribes of that era were very well versed in the art of poetry, a tradition which was passed on to Imam Shafi’i who also became very proficient in it.
His early education was marked by poverty because of which his mother could not afford to pay the fees for his education. But his teacher was so impressed by his abilities that he took him on as a formal student on a complimentary no-fees basis.
His mother could not buy him a paper due to her poor circumstances, so the young Mohammad Ibn Idris would use bones, stones and palm leaves for writing his assignments.
But these deprivations were not to keep him from acquisition of knowledge.
The young Mohammad Ibn Idris not only memorized the entire text but also the associated context and etymological history of the various verses of the whole Quran by the age of 10.
And when he was 15 he had accumulated such depth and thoroughness of Islamic knowledge that the Mufti of Makkah of that time authorized him to issue fatwas (religious edicts).
Chronologically, Imam Shafi’i was born nearly 57 years after the birth of Imam Malik, hence, the monumental work on Hadith Muwatta of Imam Malik was already in existence, which also Imam Mohammad Ibn Idris learned along with the Quran at an early age as mentioned above.
Theology wasn’t his only forte, but Imam Shafi’i also lectured on poetry, linguistics and genealogy and his students came from a varied array of disciplines.
Imam Shafi’i’s most renowned teacher was to be his predecessor Imam Malik, the originator of Malikism, one of the four leading schools of thought in Islam.
Thus, Imam Shafi’i not only learned from Imam Malik’s very famous book Muwatta at an early age, but as reported by some, that he also had the privilege when he was in the city of Madinah, to have studied directly at the hands of the master of that school of thought thereby further deepening and widening his understanding of the matters contained in that historical work.
It is a matter of supreme achievement that the student Mohammad Ibn Idris then went on to give rise to his own school of thought which is now popularly known as the Shafi’i School of Thought and thus stands shoulder to shoulder with his teacher Imam Malik in this respect.
Imam Shafi’i’s most notable contribution to the academic body of Islamic knowledge is the establishment of the sound foundations of the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence formalizing them in his famous work called Al-Risala regarded by many as the most important academic work on the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. In the minds of some people he is thought of as a revivalist of his era.
His research process started with the literal meaning of a verse of the Quran and then moving on to related Ahadith (traditions of Prophet Muhammad) and then expanding into a consensus of opinions of all the assembled learned people (Ijma) applying reasoning by analogy (Qiyas).
He is also credited with having pioneered the idea of making a distinction between judicial application of discretion in legal matters (Istihsan) and pure juristic reasoning by analogy (Qiyas).
When Imam Shafi’i moved to Makkah as a seasoned scholar in his later years, he had nearly 10,000 dinars with him which was a huge amount of money in those days.
However, on the outskirts of the city, he came across a group of people who were very poor and destitute which affected him so much that he distributed that entire sum of money amongst them to the extent that he had to borrow some money in Makkah for his own expenses.
Generosity was a notable feature of the character of Prophet Muhammad, and in the month of Ramadan, he would excel himself in it. Imam Shafi’i seems to have adopted this from Prophet Muhammad diligently and gave clothes, food and money extensively especially during Ramadan.
Imam Shafi’i kept the company of learned people till the very end of his life, and he is reported to have spent his last days in the company of Abdullah Ibnul Hakam, a well-known scholar of his time. He is thought to have died on a Friday in the Islamic calendar month of Rajab aged 54 in the year 204 A.H. (820 AD).
The governor of Egypt of that time acknowledged his academic excellence by not only just attending his funeral but actually leading those prayers. His last resting place is thought to be at the foot hills of a mount Muqattam.