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Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris Ash-Shafi’i, the founder of the Shafi’i School of Islamic Jurisprudence, was born in 767 CE, in Gaza, Palestine. He belonged to the tribe of Quraysh and was Hashimi descent – thus he was remotely connected by blood to the Prophet (saw). His mother’s name was Ummal Hassan bint Hazma ibn Qasim ibn Yazid ibn Imam Hasan. Thus he was related to the Prophet (saw) on both his father’s and mother’s side. His father died when he was only two years old, and he was raised by his mother in very humble circumstances in the holy city of Makkah. In Makkah, he studied Fiqh and hadith under Muslim ibn Khalid Zindji and Sufyan ibn Aina. He memorized the Holy Qur’an and the Muwatta of Imam Malik at the age of ten.

When he was about twenty, he went to Madinah, where he studied Fiqh under Imam Malik and stayed with him until the latter’s death in 798 CE. During the caliphate of Harus Al-Rashid, he took up an appointment in Yemen; he was accused of supporting the Alids and brought as a prisoner to Harun Al-Rashid in Raqqah (803 CE), but was pardoned by the Caliph. He then became close to the celebrated Hanafi Jurist, Muhammad ibn Al-Hasan Ash-Shaybani, and studied Fiqh under him. Thus he gained great knowledge of both Hanafi and Maliki Fiqh. In 188 AH, he went to Egypt via Harran and Syria, where he was well-received as a student of Imam Malik.

It was not until 810 CE that Imam Shafi’i went to Baghdad and settled there as a teacher. He developed a School of Fiqh which was influenced by both Hanafi and Maliki teaching, and wrote several books. His work in Baghdad is known as Al-Madhhab Al-Qadim Lil Imam Ash-Shafi’i, that is the Old School of Fiqh of Imam Ash-Shafi’i. Subsequently, he attached himself to Abdullah, the son of the newly-appointed governor of Egypt, Abbas ibn Musa, and came to Egypt on 21 June 814 CE. As a result of some disturbances, he left Egypt and went to Makkah, whence he later returned to Egypt in 815 CE. He remained in Egypt until his death in 820 CE.

Imam Shafi’i’s legal thinking became somewhat modified in Egypt, and he wrote many books during his time there. His work from this period as referred to as his “New” Madhhab. Imam Ash-Shafi’i himself propagated the teachings of his school, and in this respect he was assisted by some of his most learned followers such as Al-Muzani, Al-Rabi’ ibn Sulayman, Az-Za’farani, etc. Imam Ash-Shafi’I died on the last day of Rajab 204 AH (20 January 820 CE) in Fustat, and was buried at the foot of the mountain of Muqattam. Salah ad-Din Al-Ayyubi (Saladin) built a great and spacious Madrasah on the site. The dome above Imam Ash-Shafi’i’s tomb was built by the Avubid Malik Al-Kamil in 1211 CE; the site is one which is much-visited by Muslims.

Imam Ash-Shafi’i is regarded as one of the greatest jurists in the history of Islamic Fiqh. Modern critics hold him in every high esteem as a jurist. He is the creator of the classical theory of Islamic Fiqh, and is regarded as the founder of the science of usage. Imam Ash-Shafi’i may also be described as an intermediary between the independent approach to legal investigation and the traditionalism which was prevalent in his own time. He was a student of Imam Muhammad, who was one of the disciples of Imam Abu Hanifah, but he was also himself a follower of Imam Malik, from whom he inherited the knowledge of Hadith. Thus he acquired the legacy of talent of a discretion from his own master, Imam Muhammad, with the result that his madhhab was influenced by both the Hanafi and Maliki schools.

Imam Ash-Shafi’i not only worked through the legal material, but also investigated the principles and methods of Fiqh. In his Risalah, he identified the bases of Fiqh as being the Holy Qur’an, the Tradition of the Prophet (Sunnah), Qiyas and Ijma’. Indeed, Ijma’ came to bear upon more and more weight in his opinion. The bases of Ijma’ are the Holy Qur’an and then the Sunnah, as the case may be. Every rule must be corroborated by Ijma’ to make it valid. More or less all the schools of thought in Islam have accepted Imam Ash-Shafi’i’s classification of sources.

Imam Ash-Shafi’i said: “The Qur’an is the bases of legal knowledge and a Qur’anic revelation can be abrogated by another Qur’anic revelation. Next to the Qur’an comes the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw). Imam Ash-Shafi’i was a great exponent of Hadith, and was given the tittle of Nasir as-Sunnah (the supporter or defender of the Sunnah). But he adopted the middle course in following the Sunnah, between Imam Abu Hanifah, who relied more on the Qur’an and Qiyas, and Imam Malik, who relied more on the tradition, usages and practices of the people of Madinah. Imam Ash-Shafi’i said: “Allah has enjoined upon man the duty of obeying His divine commandment and the Sunnah of His Messenger.” He quoted the following ayah to demonstrate the obligatory nature of the Sunnah: “Our Lord, send amongst them a Messenger of their own, who shall rehearse Your Signs to them and instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom, and sanctify them for You are the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (Al-Baqarah: 129)

by M. Atiqul Haque