Brief Life of Imam Shaf'ee (Rah) (d. 204 A.H. / 820 C.E.)

Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Idris al- Shaf'ee was a descended from the Hashimi family of the Quaraish tribe to which the Holy Prophet (SAW) belonged.

He was born in Gaza, Palestine, and was raised in Makkah, his parents' home town. He memorized the holy Qur'an while he was still a young child. When he reached fifteen, his knowledge was so thorough, Muslim Ibn Khalid Al-Zinji, the Mufti of Makkah, told him: "O Abu Abdullah, give fatawa (religious rulings), for by Allah it is time for you to do so!"

Al-Shafi'i traveled extensively for the sake of spreading knowledge. He went to Madinah, met Imam Malik, memorized many ahadith, and learned the Muwatta of Imam Maliki. He also visited Iraq twice. By the second time he arrived there, he was so famous for his knowledge, that many Iraqi scholars followed him and rejected the innovations and deviations they espoused before. He then left for Egypt where he stayed until he died in 204 Hijri. There he taught the jurisprudence of the Qur'an and Sunnah. He also taught linguistics, poetry and genealogy, and debated people who were fanatically following their madhahib (schools of thought). Most of them were of the Maliki school of thought. They saw in him a wise and pious man so acquainted with their madhahib but without any fanaticism. Through him, they were able to see their flaws, and learned to seek the truth wherever it was.

But what earned Al-Shafi'i the title of the revivalist of the second century was that he was the one who put the fundamentals of jurisprudence (usul Al-Fiqh). Scholars before him used to gather the ahadith they heard in their countries, and when a hadith seemed in contradiction with another, they used their personal judgment to decide which one is the most acceptable.

Then at the time of Al-Shafi'i, the Prophet's ahadith were gathered from different countries, and the disagreements among the scholars increased until Al-Shafi'i wrote his famous book, Al-Risalah, which is considered the foundation of Islamic jurisprudence. In it, Al-Shafi'i relied on the literal meaning of the Qur'an, then on the authentic Sunnah. He strongly argued for the acceptance ahadith provided they were authentic. He considered following and applying the Sunnah as equally important as following the Qur'an. He supported the use of consensus and discouraged the use of one's personal judgment without relying on the Qur'an, the Sunnah, the consensus or the juristic reasoning by analogy (Qiyas). One of the things that distinguished Al-Shafi'i from other scholars was that he himself wrote the fundamentals of his school of thought, as well as other books that are considered the body of his jurisprudence.

Al-Shafi'i revival movement had many achievements:

  • - He brought people back to follow the Sunnah after a lot of confusion had spread among them.
  • - He was committed to relying on evidence, and rejecting blind imitation. He said: "If a hadith is proved authentic, then it becomes my belief." He also said: "If you see that my words contradict the hadith, then apply the hadith and disregard my words."
  • - When he saw the opinions of some scholars before him were not based on the Qur'an or the Sunnah, and had no foundations, he worked toward putting the fundamentals of jurisprudence, and wrote down his famous book, Al-Rissalah.
  • - He was the first to distinguish and separate between the application of discretion in legal matters (Istihsan), and the juristic reasoning by analogy (Qiyas).
  • - He did not confine himself to the knowledge of hadith or fiqh, but he was also well versed in Arabic linguistics, poetry, and genealogy. Al-Karabissi, a famous scholar of the time of Al-Shafi'i said: "I have seen nothing nobler than Al-Shafi'i's study sessions. People of hadith used to attend them as well as people of jurisprudence and poetry. Most of the well-known scholars in poetry and linguistics used to visit him, and they would listen to his discourse on all these disciplines."

Baghdad in Iraq and Cairo in Egypt were the chief centres of Imam Shafiee's activities. It is from these two cities that teachings of the Shafi-ee school spread. During the time of Sultan Salahuddeen (Saladin), the Shafi-ee Madhhab was the most prominent in Egypt, and to this day the Imam of the Al-Azhar Masjid is always a Shafi-ee and the Shafi-ee Madhhab is industriously studied along with that of the other three schools of the Sunnis.

During his life Imam Shafi-ee also suffered from political intrigues. For instance, after studying under Imam Malik in Medina he was sent to fill an office in Yemen, where he was accused of political involvement which resulted in his arrest.

He was taken as prisoner to Haroun al-Rasheed. The Khalifah however found him innocent and the Imam was honourably released.

Imam Shafiee died in the Year 204 A.H. / 820 C.E. and was laid to rest in Egypt

Major Works:
Kitab al-Risalam Fi-Usul al-Fiqh commonly known as Al-Risala
Kitab al-Umm

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