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Imam Abu Hanifah, the liberal Imam

IMAM Abu Hanifah, born Nu’man ibn Thabit ibn Nu’man, came into the world a mere eighty years after the Prophet Muhammad’s (s) death. His grandfather was a Persian revert to Islam. His father was a wealthy silk merchant who died during his childhood.

By the time Abu Hanifah had passed away in an ‘Abbasid prison at the age of eighty, he had become one of Islam’s towering intellects and an historical figure. He possessed such prodigious mental capacity that he could recite the entire Qur’an in one prayer cycle.

Today, Abu Hanifah is largely unknown to us other than being the founder of a legal school of thought, a madh-hab. Scorned by ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, the pioneer of Salafi-Wahhabism (who rejected the schools of thought in the late 17th century), his personality has disappeared under the rubble of anti-madh-habism that has so characterised our faith in the last two-hundred years.

It is also said that ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab, quixotically and puritanically trying to reshape Islam in a reductionist image of the Prophetic-era Salaf, did not like Abu Hanifah because of his love of qiyas (analogical reasoning) and vigorous debate. Some even suggest he did not like Abu Hanifah because the Ottoman Turks – whose caliphate he considered illegitimate – were Hanafi.

Whatever the case, due to the one-eyed scholarship of the Salafi-Wahhabi movement, it can be argued quite convincingly that in modern Islam the outstanding legacy and excellence, the ihsan, of our four honoured imams (Malik, Shafi’i, Abu Hanifah and Hanbal who represent the schools of thought) has been hugely ignored.

Few, if any, of the poorly written, badly edited Salafi-Wahhabi booklets that have flooded the market in the past two hundred years have focused on these great Sunni imams. The bleak Salafi-Wahhabi landscape – filled with bida’h, shirk and kufr (innovation, polytheism and unbelief) – and devoid of cultural taste, spirituality, diversity, music, art and poetry has been our forced diet for a very long time.

This is why our society has stagnated, incapable of advancing beyond Islam to iman and ihsan (faith and spiritual nobility) as in the famous Hadith when the Angel Jibril questioned the Prophet (s) on the elementals of belief. In fact, we have come to epitomise another Prophetic tradition. This is when the Prophet (s) predicted that as Muslims we would be many on earth, but weak like flotsam and jetsam.

This is perhaps why ‘Hanafi’ is now associated with a caricature of the Indo-Pak, or ‘Taliban’, personality. It is perhaps why we no longer truly understand, or appreciate, the depth, diversity and blessings of the madh-dhahib, the four famous schools of legal thought. These schools, representing the finest minds of Islam, are the doors to iman and ihsan, which in turn lead to tariqah and to haqiqah (to the spiritual path and to realisation).

One just wonders what Abu Hanifah, a tall, thin man with a light brown complexion, would think today of those who have tribalised Islam, and who seem to believe that ugly bare ankles and generous facial hair constitute the finest signs of faith. One wonders too what he would think of those who in his name assert that intellectual purdah and subjugation is a desirable thing for women.

Of course, in the case of the real Abu Hanifah the opposite is true. On the issue of women’s rights he is unrivaled, and it is nothing less than a travesty that our honourable Mawlana’s have not paid more attention to this aspect of his illustrious madh-hab.

For example, it was Abu Hanifah – and not Amina Wudud – who said that a woman could become a qadi or religious judge. It was Abu Hanifah who stated that it was better for a daughter to choose the wrong husband, than for her parents to force her to marry a man she did not like.

Abu Hanifah’s illustrious career as a scholar began when he met one of the Sufi mystics of Kufa in the market place. This man, Imam Shabi, asked him what he was doing selling silk because he saw the light of knowledge in his face.

What really motivated Abu Hanifah to learn, however, was when a woman came to him with a question about divorce. The young Abu Hanifah could not answer, and from there on he decided to seek knowledge at the feet of as many teachers as he could, amongst them being Shaikh Hammad ibn Sulaiman and Ja’fr ibn Sadiq.

He also learnt at the feet of one of Makkah’s finest scholars, Ata ibn Abi Rabah, and imbibed the teachings of ninety-three Hadith masters.

Having lost his father at an early age, Abu Hanifah enjoyed a close relationship with his mother. She was a feisty lady, and in deference to the poisonous jealousy that used to surround him, refused to accept his religious rulings. Instead, the most learned man in Islam at the time would humbly accompany his mother to visit Kufa’s scholars.

In spite of having supported the anti-Ummayad sentiments of his era, Abu Hanifah firmly believed in an independent judiciary. In order not to prostitute themselves, scholars had to remain aloof from politicians and rulers. When he refused the position of chief judge with the ‘Abbasids (whom he had supported against the Ummayads) he was imprisoned, beaten and tortured.

One day he started weeping and, astounded by this behaviour, his fellow inmates asked him why he was so sad. “These whips and walls can’t make me cry, but I weep for the suffering of my mother,” he replied.

Abu Hanifah’s acute intelligence was reflected in his love of dialogue and debate. His classes were no passive teacher-pupil affairs, and he used to actively engage his students on legal and theological issues.

The same was with his teachers. One day Imam Laith (another forgotten giant) became angered when Abu Hanifah crossed swords with Imam Malik. The great man of Madinah then turned to Imam Laith to placate him, laughing that Abu Hanifah was going to convince him that stone was made of gold.

Abu Hanifah’s debating skills were demonstrated when he took on the Khawarij of his time. This sect – the ancestors of the Najdi Salafi-Wahhabis – had rebelled against the caliphate of Sayyidina ‘Ali, and were rabid literalists. To sin or disagree with them was to fall into unbelief which made your blood halal. They were so one-dimensional that judgment in any matter had to rest with Allah alone.

One night they rudely invaded his class and gave him an ultimatum. “Agree with us or we’ll kill you!”

Abu Hanifah convinced his detractors that they debate the issues first. Asking them to select a spokesperson, he asked: “Who amongst us is going to decide who has the strongest argument?” After the Khawarij discussed the matter, he then informed them that as Allah would not be arbitrating, they could not now debate as they had just betrayed their own principles!

Abu Hanifah did not suffer fools gladly. He did not like pomposity either. Contrived poverty, as far as he was concerned, was false piety. Interestingly, he would never lead the communal prayer – a characteristic of many famous scholars, even today.

As a man of knowledge, Abu Hanifah maintained his independence by supporting himself. His school of thought has deep insights into the ethics of tijara (business) due to his intimate understanding of it.

In business, he was meticulously honest. One day he told his servant to inform a client that a bolt of silk had a slight fault in it. The man failed to do this. Abu Hanifah’s response was to fire him and to search for his customer. When the customer could not be located, the Imam gave the proceeds of the sale – some 30, 000 dirhams – to the poor.

It is reported that Abu Hanifah was so pious he would frequently make the dawn prayer with the ritual ablution of the evening one. And it is because of his extra-devotional night prayers that one of the most endearing stories about him is related. He had a neighbour, a somewhat merry cobber, who used to spend his evenings drunkenly singing the same song, “people have let me go to waste” over and over again.

One night, as Abu Hanifah sat in worship, there was silence. Curious, he knocked on the door of his neighbour’s house the following morning only to discover the man had been imprisoned. Rushing to the jail, Abu Hanifah pleaded for his release and then asked his neighbour: “Have I allowed you to go to waste?”

The cobbler became a changed man after this neighbourly experience and gave up his carousing and drinking. Ten years later that same cobbler (who had had underlying reasons for his drinking) became one of Kufa’s top religious scholars.

Abu Hanifah – who is so named because of his excellent qualities – is definitely a historical personality we need to know better. He lies buried in Baghdad, and was so popular that after his death his funeral prayer had to be offered six times.

His open-handedness, love of dialogue and lack of fear in asking questions is something that we Muslims today need to embrace again. The true Abu Hanifah is not the picture of a cleric ranting about the forbidden in life. No, the true Abu Hanifah is a man of liberality, generosity and justice with a heart wide open to the world and all that it offers.


  1. slmz.bro,plz don’t start wif this now.we will take guidance from ulema n we dont need your advice.these very hanafi ulema you condemn,spend between 6 and 10 years to obtain their basic qualification.bsides a substantial amount of time is spent on studying fiqh from year 1.n im sure theyd b more aquinted wif imaam abu hanifah/his teachings than ur honarable self as Abu Hanifah(R.A) was the father of really irritates me when uneducated ppl who hav no bonafides,put themselves on a self-righteuos,holier-than-thou pedestal n wish 2 condemn/critisise/question experts when they themselves have little or no knowledge.i dunno when ur crusade against ulema hu hold diffrnt views 2 u is gna stop.

  2. Assalamu Alaikum Mr. Shafiq Morton,

    Your article is actually is very articulate, satisfying and illuminating about Imam Abu Hanifa. In today’s world we need his way of understanding and interpreting Islam. As you clearly sressed in your article Wahhabism confined Islam to be understood as a tribalistic religion, but actually Islam contains a universal civilization potentiality. We proved this in the past as Muslims through the Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans peaking in science, art, politics and economy.

    I believe we can realize this again by rediscovering our old (but really not old) intellectual giants such as Hanafi and the other madhab imams and Mawlana, Attar,Ghazzali and the ones whom I can’t recount here.

    The articles like yours will ignite the interest of thousand young talents in this path.

    I wish you write new good articles

    Selahattin Ozel
    The editor of the Pen Magazine
    published in Istanbul, Turkey

  3. a response to MR “matbooh’s” post —-

    i have a long list of comments on your grammar and punctuation but i’ll only mention one— you can stick a hyphen up you know where……..

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