What are the principal schools in Muslim Law?

By | April 26, 2022
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Question: What are the principal schools in Muslim Law?

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Schools of Islamic Legal Thought also Known as Madhahib in Arabic, emerged due to the independent interpretation of the general principles of the Quran and sunnah by various prominent scholars over the centuries. Each school was designated under the name of its founding scholar. All these schools were established very early in Islamic history. The purpose of each school was basically to interpret the general principles of the Quran and sunnah concerning specific cases and this was done by the eminent scholars.

Schools under Muslim can be broadly defined in two parts:

  • Sunni School
  • Shia School

Sunni Muslims are the largest sect of Islam. Derived from the word Sunnah, which means the examples or actions of the Prophet, Sunnis are those who follow the Sunnah. They believe in the legitimacy of the four caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Hazrat Ali.

Sunni Islam is divided into four schools of law or fiqh (religious jurisprudence): Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali. There are minor differences among these schools of law. 

Hanafi: The Hanafi School is the oldest surviving school of Islamic law and the one with the largest following. Followers of Imam Abu Hanifa, the Hanafis see Quran, the Sunnah, the ijma (consensus) and qiyas (deduction from analogy) as the sources of law. Hanafis are based mostly in the Indian subcontinent, Iraq, Turkey, and the western world. 

As well as using the Quran and the Prophet’s (PBUH) life as sources of guidance, this group also relied heavily on using logical arguments to find answers to social problems that also fitted in with their understanding of Islam.

Maliki: The next school of law in order of time was the one founded by Imam Malik bin Anas (d. 795 A.D.) of Medinah and reflects the views and practices associated with that city. Imam Malik served as a judge in Medinah and compiled all his decisions in a book form called al-Muwatta (the Levelled Path).

Like the jurists of Iraq, Imam Malik preferred to depend more on the Traditions associated with the Companions of the Holy Prophet. The adherents of this school are predominantly in North African countries.

Shafi: The third school was founded by Imam al-Shafi (d. 820 A.D.) who was a disciple of Imam Malik. Imam Shafi placed great importance on the Traditions of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and explicitly formulated the rules for establishing the Islamic law. He was a great thinker and had an unusual grasp of principles and a clear understanding of judicial problems.

This school is strong in Lower Egypt, Syria, India, and Indonesia.

Hanbali: This school was founded by Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855 A.D.) of Baghdad. Imam Hanbal did not establish a separate school himself; this was rather done by his disciples and followers.

The Hanbaliyya was the most conservative of the four schools. Its rigidity and intolerance eventually caused its decline over the years. In the eighteenth century, however, this school was revived with the rise of Wahhabism and the growing influence of the House of Sa’ud. Today, Hanbaliyya school is followed only in Saudi Arabia.

The Hanbalis insist on the literal injunctions of the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith and are very strict in the observance of religious duties.

Three major schools of Shias

Ithna-Asharis School: This school is also known as Imamia School. These schools’ followers are mostly found in Iran and Iraq. These schools are based on the Ithna- Ashari laws. The majority of Shias follow Ithna –Ashari laws. They are considered political quietists. The people who follow the Ithna Asharis school believe that the last of the Imams disappeared and to be returning as Mehdi(Messiah). Within this school, two sub-schools exist.

  • Akhbari– This school rigidly follows the tradition of the Imam.
  • Usuli– This school gives a practical interpretation of the Quran.

Ismailiyah School: The school of Ismailis accepted only seven Imams and were hence known as the  ‘Seveners’. Their origin could be traced to Egypt. These consist of two groups of them viz, (1) the Kohojas or Eastern Ismailis who were believed to be followers of Aga Khan who was the 49th Imam in the line of the prophet, and (2) Western Ismailis popularly called Bohras who were divided among the Sulaymanis and Daudis. They prevailed in Central Asia, East Africa, Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, and Iran.

Zaidiyah School: Imam Zaidi founded this school. They believed that Imam should be based on election, so the succession in this school is through the election. They believe Imam to be above and considered as a ‘right guide’.  The Zaidis were followed in the South of Arabia, mostly in Yemen.

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