Imam Abu Haneefa

Imam Abu Haneefa (Al Shaykh al A’zam)

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

A giant among giants, Imam Abu Haneefa towers high among the savants who have graced Islamic history. He was like a huge mirror vaulting from horizon to horizon, reflecting the Light of the Prophet. These reflections empowered generation after generation to see the Light and bask in its warmth. A great majority of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world today (circa 2010 CE) follow the School of Fiqh named after him.

Al Shaykh al A’zam (the Great Shaykh), as he is referred to by those who adore him, was the first to define the processes that govern usool  e Fiqh (the principles of Fiqh). He preceded Imam Malik by ten years, Imam Shafii by a generation and Imam Ahmed by a hundred years.  Imam Abu Haneefa studied with Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq.  In turn, the other great Imams had the benefit of the legacy of Imam Abu Haneefa when they took on the monumental task of codifying Fiqh.

That Imam Abu Haneefa was one of the greatest of the mujtahideen is well known. What is not commonly known is that he was also a master city planner, responsible for the planning of the city of Baghdad when it was founded by the Caliph al Mansur in 760 CE. Abu Haneefa was a mathematician of the first magnitude.  He was aware of the concepts of specific density and specific volume and implemented them in practice. As a philosopher, his work anticipated the Hegelian dialectic by more than a thousand years. The Hegelian dialectic (named after Hegel the German philosopher of the 17th century) is one of the basic principles of Western philosophy.  Its premise is that a higher collective truth emerges when multiple individual truths compete. Looked another way it also means that the state is more important than the individual. To cap it all, Abu Haneefa was no hermit, or a pure academician, cloistering himself in a monastery or a mosque. He was a rich man, a successful merchant, a wonderful human being who lived among common folk with the zest and enthusiasm of a believer and contributed to the life of the community that he was a part of.

The Tigris River kisses the tomb of this mujtahid as it meanders through the now battered city of Baghdad. Located approximately six kilometers from the city center, the mosque of Abu Haneefa is located in the district of Al A’zamiyah which is named after him. It attracts pilgrims from Turkey, Bosnia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India , Bangladesh, indeed from all over the Islamic world.  The cemetery is old. During the Abbasid period (751 to 1258 CE) it was called Maqbaratul Khaysarun, named after the mother of the Caliph Harun al Rashid (763-809CE).  It has the tombs of many of the Abbasid Caliphs and dignitaries.

Gazing at the Abu Haneefa mosque from across the Tigris River on the west bank is the tomb of another great savant Imam Musa al Kazim. The district is named after him and is called Kazimiyah. Musa al Kazim  (745-799CE) was the seventh imam in the lineage of ahl-e-bait in the Ithna Ashari Shia tradition. The Tigris River divides the two tombs and in a wistful simile symbolizes the Shia-Sunni divide that runs through Islamic history as does the river Tigris through the divided city of Baghdad. It is said among the believers on both sides that the two great scholars, Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Musa al Kazim talk to each other in the early hours of the morning bemoaning the Shia-Sunni  fitna that has engulfed Baghdad and urging the believers to build a bridge. Indeed, a bridge was built connecting the two mosques early in the twentieth century. The Shias and the Sunnis could not agree whether to call it the al A’azamiyah Bridge or the al Kazimiyah Bridge. Therefore, a compromise was reached and it was simply called Burj al Imamiyah (the Bridge of the Imams).

The story of Imam Abu Haneefa is the story of the famed city of Baghdad. With the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE, the center of gravity of political power shifted from the Arab heartland to Persia, Khorasan and Central Asia. Acknowledging this shift in power, the Caliph al Mansur wished to relocate his capital from Damascus, Syria. Iraq, sandwiched between Persia and the Arab world was the logical choice. Imam Abu Haneefa was commissioned by the Caliph to locate and plan a site for the new capital. Abu Haneefa chose the current location, around a bend of the River Tigris, paying careful attention to defense and communications. To obtain the concurrence of the Caliph, Abu Haneefa marked out the geometrical layout of the planned capital, showing in detail the location of the palace, the mosque, the market place, the residential areas and the fort. Then he sprinkled cotton seeds over the marked outlines. Selecting a moonless night when there was little background radiation, Imam Abu Haneefa set fire to the cotton seeds. One of the characteristics of cotton seeds is that they radiate a brilliant light when they are burned. Using the burning cotton seeds as his guide, Imam Abu Haneefa showed the outline of the planned city to the Caliph from a tower specially constructed for observation on the occasion. The Caliph was pleased and authorized the construction to begin.

A large number of bricks were needed for the construction of the city. Factories went up all around the selected site but there was no quality control, of either weight or size. Imam Abu Haneefa prescribed that each brick must meet specific requirements of dimensions and weight. In addition, he stipulated that the bricks, once delivered, be stacked in cubical piles of prescribed dimensions so that the total number of bricks in each pile was one thousand. In this manner, he introduced the concepts of specific density and specific volume and applied them in a major architectural project.

Abu Haneefa was born as Nu’man bin Thabit bin Marzuban. His grandfather Marzuban was an Afghan from Kabul and accepted Islam during the early Umayyad period. Unlike most Arabic names, the name Abu Haneefa is derived from the name of one of his daughters, Haneefa. The people of Baghdad relate that Haneefa, the daughter of the Imam, was well known for her piety and showed great intelligence and wisdom at an early age.  She had her own halqa where she instructed students in matters of religion. A group of women asked her how so many individual men and women could work together for the common good even though they had their own separate families. Haneefa asked each of the women to bring a cup of milk. Taking a large ceramic jug from her father’s house, she poured the milk from each of the individual cups into the jar. “Now, tell me”, she asked each of the ladies, “which portion of the milk is yours”. The women instantly understood that the community was like the milk in the jar. The milk came from different cups but it was now one. As the fame of Haneefa spread, people started to refer to the Imam as Abu Haneefa (the father of Haneefa).

Marzuban was a successful merchant, engaged in the silk trade through the ancient caravan silk road leading from India through Afghanistan, Central Asia to China. He entered the fold of Islam during the period of Khulfa e Rashideen and moved to the garrison city of Kufa in southern Iraq. Located not far from the port city of Abadan, the city of Kufa became the provincial capital of Iraq and a bustling town of commerce and trade. Marzuban prospered as a silk merchant and it was here that Thabit, the father of Abu Haneefa was born.

Thabit ibn Marzuban grew up to be a God fearing young man. It is related that one day as he walked by the banks of the Tigris River, he found an apple that had floated downstream.  Hungry as he was, he picked up the apple and ate it. But then remorse set in. “Who did the apple belong to?”, asked the young Thabit. “I consumed an item without paying for it. How will face the Judgment Day for this forgetfulness?”. He walked upstream along the river bank to find the orchard from where the apple had come so that he could approach the owner of the orchard and seek his pardon. He located the orchard and knocked at the door of the owner who was amazed at the honesty and integrity of the young man standing before him, head bowed, asking for his forgiveness. “I will pardon you, but on one condition”, said the owner.  “Anything you propose, sir, I will accept”, said the young Thabit, “I am even willing to work for you to pay off the debt of the apple”. “The condition, my son, is this”, said the owner, “You must marry my daughter. She is blind, deaf and dumb. I need someone to take care of her”. That was the language of the Haneefs. The young Thabit understood that the daughter had never seen anything objectionable, heard anything bad or spoken ill of anyone. He immediately agreed.

Nu’man bin Thabit, later known by his universal name Imam Abu Haneefa,  was born in the year 699 CE or 77 AH in the city of Kufa. As it is with most famous men and women in history, his lineage is claimed by Iranians, Afghans and Arabs alike. But most scholars agree he was of Afghan parentage through his grandfather Marzuban. Kufa was at the time a garrison city in a period of rapid expansion of the Omayyad empire. It was also the provincial capital and a commercial center, a meeting place for Persians, Arabs, Afghans and Indians. Turkish tribesmen wandered in from Central Asia as did the Chinese from far away Sinkiang. Abu Haneefa was only twelve years old when Sindh and Multan were added to the Omayyad domains through the conquests of Mohammed bin Qasim.

The melting pot that was Kufa left a lasting impact on the young Abu Haneefa and this impact is reflected in his Fiqh. “The Iman of a converted Turk is the equal to the iman of a resident of Madina”, summarizes his openness and acceptance of people of all nations and ethnic origins. Kufa was the very antithesis of Madina. While Madina was the city of the Prophet, the cradle of Islamic civilization, insulated from the convulsive currents in faraway lands, Kufa was at the very center of cultural and intellectual turbulence brought on by the mixing of Persian Zoroastrians, Chinese Buddhists, Indian Hindus and Arab Muslims. The geopolitical as well the cultural contexts of the two cities was different. This background must be kept in mind by students of comparative Fiqh who study the positions of the various schools of Fiqh on specific issues.

Abu Haneefa, born as he was into a merchant family, learned the silk trade from his grandfather. His early training was in commerce rather than in Sunnah and Fiqh. It is related that when he was eight years old and was on his way to his grandfather’s silk store, he was stopped by a Shaykh and was asked which madrasa he was headed to. The Shaykh saw the light on the face of the young Abu Haneefa and the great potential in the young lad. When Abu Haneefa answered that he was headed to a silk store and not to a classroom, the Shaykh took him on as his pupil. The young Abu Haneefa made rapid progress and soon outperformed all the other students in the school, memorizing the Quran, learning ahadith and soaking in the knowledge that the best of the Shaykhs had to offer.

The learning of the young Shaykh Abu Haneefa soon attracted the attention of scholars and young and old alike attended his halqa (a circle of students) and learned from him. Traveling to the Hijaz, Abu Haneefa performed his Hajj and spent two years in Madina attending the halqa of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq, learning from him the inner meaning of the Shari’ah as transmitted from the Prophet through ahl-e-bait. There is, however, another school  of thought which believes that Imam Abu Haneefa and Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq never met. However, on the basis of the hadith e mutwattir (continuous hadith) of Imam Abu Haneefa, “If it were not for the two years I spent with Ja’afar as Sadiq, I would be left wandering”, we accept the premise that Imam Abu Haneefa did indeed attend the halqa of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq and learned ilm ul ishara (the knowledge of what is beyond perception) from him.

Imam Abu Haneefa had a unique method of teaching his students. Instead of giving them solutions to specific questions brought before him for judgment, the Imam would divide up his students into two groups. One group was asked to defend a proposition while the other was asked to oppose it. The students would study the Quran, the verified ahadith and the earlier decisions taken by the Suhaba, passionately debate among themselves, and would finally come up with a consensus. The process was devised to remove any probability of error in the judgment and the premise was that a higher truth emerges out of the dialectic (debate) of two opposing positions. A thousand years later, the same process became the foundation for the Hegelian dialectic, a school of philosophy named after the German philosopher George Wilhelm Frederich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel is considered the father of dialectic philosophy in the western world. The Marxists as well as the German nationalists before the Second World War considered Hegel to be the father of their ideology.

Imam Abu Haneefa was keenly aware of the challenges faced by jurists in the dynamic social environment of Kufa. The Zoroastrians, the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Sabians and the Christians had their own view of the cosmos and their own way of relating to the transcendent. As conversion to Islam from these ancient faiths picked up momentum, especially during the reign of the Caliph Omar bin Abdel Aziz (717-719 CE), so did the challenge of answering the questions posed by the new entrants to the Islamic faith. Imam Abu Haneefa rose to the challenge. He looked upon Fiqh as a dynamic process, applicable in all ages and all locations. No jurist of the future would be left without the tools required to search for solutions to the specific problems faced by him in his own space and time.

It is important here to elaborate on the terms Shari’ah and Fiqh as the two are sometimes used interchangeably as if they are synonymous, which they are not. Shari’ah is the unchanging, eternal Law of the Divine and applies to nature, history as well as societal issues. The fact that the sun  rises from the east is Shari’ah. The fact that electromagnetic waves take more than eight minutes to reach the earth from the sun is Shari’ah. If the earth was any closer to the sun, it would be too hot. If the earth was any farther away, it would be too cold. In either case, life on this planet would be impossible. The fact that the earth is tucked in a secure niche, coupled to a star of medium size, in a secure corner of our galaxy which rotates in its own orbit  is Shari’ah. The fact that individuals and nations will ultimately destroy themselves if they violate justice is Shari’ah. Prayer is Shari’ah.  So are charity, fasting, zakat and hajj.

Fiqh is the historical dimension of the Shari’ah. It is the human attempt to apply the Shari’ah so that they discharge the Divine commandment to create Divine patterns on earth. It defines the how, what, who when and what ifs of the Shari’ah. The process of Fiqh is a dynamic balance between the application of Divine Mercy and Divine Wrath with justice acting as the governing principle.  The Quran and the hadith explain clearly that Divine Mercy is preponderant over Divine wrath (The Quran, 11:119.). The dimensions of Shari’ah are infinite. The dimensions of Fiqh are finite and it has definite hudood (limits).

The Hanafi Fiqh which evolved as an outgrowth of the teachings of Imam Abu Haneefa offers five sources for the development of Fiqh: the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet and his confirmed Ahadith, the Ijmah of the Companions, Qiyas and Istehsan.  The different schools of Fiqh differ on the importance of these five sources. The Maliki school which grew up in Madina in the heart of the Islamic world, accepts the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the collective Ijmah of all the Companions as sources of Fiqh but it rejects Qiyas and Istehsan. The Shafii school requires the Ijmah of the Companions to be universal as does the Maliki Fiqh, but unlike the Maliki Fiqh, it accepts the principle of Qiyas under exceptional circumstances. The Shafii Fiqh rejects Istehsan as does the Ithna Ashari Fiqh. The Hanbali Fiqh is the strictest of them all. It accepts only the Quran, the verified Sunnah of the Prophet and the universal consensus of the Companions as sources of Fiqh.

The Sunnah schools accept the mutuality of the four major schools of Fiqh, namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali. They differ only in their emphasis of the sources of Fiqh.

It was the genius of Imam Abu Haneefa that he left behind a legacy of jurisprudence, and the broadest principles that practically any jurist at any time and any place could use. Al Madhab al Qiyas, for instance, is the science of analogy. Qiyas literally means to measure, to place something in balance. Where a direct injunction from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is not available, the principle of Qiyas permits the jurist to use the force of analogy, to measure the preponderance of evidence and offer a legal opinion on a juridical matter. Similarly, where an entirely new situation arises which was not foreseen in earlier times, the principle of Estehsan (derived from the root ha-sa-na, meaning that which is beautiful or preferred) provides a jurist the independence of Ijtihad (which means a rigorous intellectual exercise to arrive at a legal opinion).

The principles of Qiyas and Estehsan are available to the large number of Muslims who live as minorities in India, China, Europe and America to apply the Shari’ah and deduce legal opinions that meet the requirements of their social, political and economic context. For instance, in the thirteenth century, at the height of the Mongol destruction, the great scientist Nasiruddin al Tusi applied the principles of Estehsan to develop a school of akhlaq (character) called akhlaq e Nasiri. This school later became the foundation of the curriculum in the schools of Mogul India. Through his very openness, Imam Abu Haneefa left open the doors to ijtehad for minorities, doors that were shut in later times. This is his legacy. This is his greatness. No wonder he is referred to as al Shaykh al A’zam (the great Shaykh).If ever a Fiqh for minorities, al Fiqh al akhliya (minority Fiqh) is evolved (as opposed to the existing schools of Fiqh which are all Fiqh al aghlabiya, the Fiqh of the majority or the dominant group), the credit for its foundation must go to Imam al A’zam, Abu Haneefa.

Imam Abu Haneefa was a successful merchant and in his mu’amilaat (commercial transactions) demonstrated a fastidious adherence to the principles of the Shari’ah. It is related that once the Imam gave a loan to a man to build a house.  The next year, on a hot summer day, as the Imam was walking through the streets of Basra, he felt tired and paused briefly in the shade of a house. When he enquired whose house it was, he was told that the house belonged to the man whom the Imam had given the loan. The Imam was terrified that he had taken an Idhafa (an increase) in the loan by taking advantage of the shade of the house and on the Judgment Day he would have to answer for his deeds because the act of taking refuge in the shade of a house for which he had given a loan might be construed as riba. Distraught, Imam Abu Haneefa forgave the loan.

Even while maintaining the rigor of his principles, the great Imam was very human and had a keen sense of humor. Once a man asked him about taking a bath in the River Tigris “Should I face the qibla when I wash myself”, asked the man. “No!”, replied the Imam, “You should face the bank of the river and watch your clothes”.

His success and his greatness made the political establishment of the times jealous of him. In 766 CE Caliph al Mansur asked Imam Abu Haneefa to be the chief Kadi of Baghdad. The Caliph had hoped that by offering him a high post he could bring the Imam under his control. But the great mujtahideen have through the ages refused the favors of kings and noblemen to maintain their independence. Abu Haneefa refused. The Caliph, furious that his invitation was spurned, had the Imam flogged and put in jail. Even in his prison, the Imam continued to teach and train his disciples. And it was in prison that this great mujtahid breathed in his last. It was the year 767 CE. The tribute to this giant among scholars is that a large majority of Muslims around the world, from Istanbul to Dhaka, from Samarqand to Cairo, use the Fiqh developed by this great mujtahid. The principles of Qiyas and Istehsan evolved by Imam Abu Haneefa provide the processes that can be used by the Muslims of America and Europe in the twenty-first century as they were used by the Muslims of Kufa in the eighth century.  These principles provide the intellectual tools that can be used to develop a minority Fiqh (al Fiqh al Akhliyya) which has yet to appear in the Islamic world.