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Imam Abu Hanifah: Life and Scholarship (Part 1)

In the illustrious line of scholars, Imam Abu Hanifah is known as Imam al-A`zam or “the greatest Imam.” His inspiring life and remarkable contributions to the development of Islam law furthered the cause of Islamic scholarship profoundly.

He was among the first to apply the recognized methods of legal reasoning in a consistent way. Also, he was one of the leading figures in gathering the legal statements of his time into an organized corpus.

The juridical school of thought that formed in line with his style of reasoning became the most widely practiced school in the Islamic world. There were a number of key reasons for its wide acceptance: it was a school that was favored by the ruling dynasties of the most extensive, populous, and enduring of the Muslim empires—the `Abbasids, the Ottomans, and the Mughals.[1]

In addition, it was also due to his incredibly distinguished students who were Imams in their own right that carried on his work and legacy. Till this very day, the Hanafi madhhabis the most widely followed madhhab in the Sunni world. It is most prevalent in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.

In this series, I will present the life, thoughts, fiqh, and contributions of the great Imam, Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man.

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Birth and Family

Nu`man ibn Thabit ibn Zuta ibn Mah al-Taymi, better known as, Abu Hanifah, was born in Kufah in the year 80 A.H. according to most sources and died in the year 150 A.H.[2]He was born during the reign of the Umayyad caliph `Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.

The reason behind his kunyah (nickname) “Abu Hanifah” is a mystery. Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi writes,

“It is possible that a daughter named Hanifah died so early in infancy that people did not mention her. It is also possible that someone made up the kunyah on an occasion when it seemed appropriate and thereafter it just suck and became accepted usage.”[3]

He is of Persian origin and is understood to be from a relatively wealthy family. Muhammad Abu Zahra notes in The Four Imams that the sources do not reveal the life, occupation, and circumstances of Abu Hanifah’s father but certain factors could be deduced about his circumstances. He suggests that Abu Hanifah’s father must have been wealthy, a merchant, and a good Muslim.[4]

Based on the majority of books that present the biography of Abu Hanifah, there is mention that his father met the fourth Caliph of Islam, `Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) during his childhood and that his grandfather gave `Ali some faludhaj (a type of dessert) on the day of Nawruz. This is an indication that his family was wealthy since they were able to give the Caliph sweets that only the wealthy ate.

Furthermore, it is also related that `Ali supplicated for Thabit and his descendants upon seeing him. Abu Zahra states that this shows that Thabit was born into Islam and Abu Hanifah grew up in a Muslims household and all scholars confirm this. [5]

However, this lack of information about Abu Hanifah’s father reaffirms the fact that in order to achieve great heights and great scholarship it is not about ancestry or lineage, but rather, it is about virtue and quality.

An Early Relation with the Qur’an

Imam Abu Hanifah grew up in Kufah learning the Qur’an and memorizing it during his childhood. He followed the recitation of `Asim, the most popular narrator among the seven accepted ways of reciting the Qur’an.[6] He had a deep love for the Qur’an and would recite it in his nightly prayers. He used to reflect on it and ponder over its teachings.

Abu Zahra remarks that it might have been that the family of Abu Hanifah was wealthy and the custom of the most wealthy city dwellers was to learn and memorize Qur’an.[7] There is a report that he used to recite the entire Qur’an seven times in Ramadan. Commenting on this, Abu Zahra explains that even if this is an exaggeration it is based on the fact that Abu Hanifah used to recite the Qur’an a lot.[8]

Helping in Father’s Business

The scholars have deduced that Abu Hanifah’s frequenting the market prior to him frequenting the scholars indicates that he was engaged in business and trade. From this, it could be understood that Abu Hanifah’s father was a merchant and that he followed in his footsteps and became a merchant too.[9]

It is generally believed that he started the study of hadith andfiqh later on his life, after he had established himself in commerce. Muhammad Mojlum Khan writes in The Muslim 100, “Abu Hanifah spent his early years pursuing business and commercial interests.”[10]

Although he may have started later than his counterparts, his hard work and diligence led him to the top very quick.

“By all accounts, Abu Hanifah was a late starter and most of his peers were way ahead of him when he began his studies. But, thanks to his indefatigable energy and intellectual brilliance, he soon became a prominent Islamic thinker and jurist.”[11]

In contrast to this perspective, Dr. Akram Nadwi has a slightly different view as to when Imam Abu Hanifah began his studies. He suggests that for period of time, Abu Hanifah paused his studies of hadith and fiqh in order to help his father in his business.[12] This shows that he was studying, but due to urgent circumstances he was obliged to put his studies on hold for some time.

[1] Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Abu Hanifah, His Life, Legal Method, and Legacy (Leicester, Kube Publishing Ltd., 2010), 1.

[2] Muhammad Abu Zahra, The Four Imams, trans. Aisha Bewley (London, Dar Al Taqwa Ltd.,1999),123.

[3] Nadwi, Abu Hanifah, 2.

[4] Abu Zahra, 126.

[5] Ibid., 127.

[6] Nadwi, Abu Hanifah, 23.

[7] Abu Zahra, 127.

[8] Ibid., 127.

[9] Ibid., 127

[10] Muhammad Mojlum Khan, The Muslim 100, (Leicester, Kube Publishing Ltd., 2010), 55.

[11] Ibid., 55.

[12] Nadwi, Abu Hanifah, 23.