Biography of Abu Hanifa

by Rameen Moshref

Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man son of Thabit, theologian and religious lawyer, the eponym of the school of the Haniafis. He died in 767 AD/150AH at the age of 70, and was therefore born about the year 699/80. His grandfather Zuta is said to have been brought as a slave from Kabul (Afghanistan) to Kufa, and let free by a member of the Arabian tribe of Taym-Allah son of Tha’laba. Abu Hanifa is occasionally callled al-Taymi. Very little is known of his life, except that he lived in Kufa as a manufacturer and merchant of a kind of silk material. It is certian that he attended the lecture meetings of Hammad son of Abi Sulayman (d. 120 AH) who taught religous law in Kufa, and perhaps on the occasion of Hajj, those of ‘Ata’ son of Abi Rabah (d. 114 or 115 AH) in Mecca. The long lists, given by his later biographers, of authorities from whom he is supposed to have “heard” Traditions [Hadith], are to be treated with caution. Afterh the death of Hammad, Abu Hanifa became the formost authority on questions of religious law in Kufa and the main representative of the Kufian school of law.

Abu Hanifa was never a Qazi. He died in the prison of the 2nd Abbassid Khalifa, al-Mansur, in Baghdad, where he lies buried. A dome was built over his tomb in 459 AH/1066 AD. The quarter around the mausoleum is still called al-A’zamiyya, al-Imam al-A’zam being Abu Hanifa’s customary epithet. The truth about his imprisonment is probably that he compromised himself by unguarded remarks at the time of the rising of the ‘Alids al-Nafs al-Zakiyya and his brother Ibrahim, in 145 AH, and was transported to Baghdad and imprisoned there.

Abu Hanifa did not himself compose any works on religious law, but discussed his opinions with and dictated them to his disciples. Some of the works of these last are therefore the main sources for Abu Hanifa’s doctrine, particularly the Ikhtilaf Abi Hanifa wa’bn Abi Layla and the al-Radd ‘ala Siyar al-Awza’i by Abu Yusuf, and the al-Hujaj and the version of Malik’s Muwatta’ by al-Shaybani. The comparison of Abu Hanifa’s successors with his predecessors enables us to assess his achievement in developing Mohammad legal thought and doctrine.

Abu Hanifa seems to have played the role of a theoretical systematizer who achieved a considerable progress in technical legal thought. Abu Hanifa’s doctrine is as a rule systematically consistent. His legal thought is not only more broadly based and more thoroughly applied than that of his older contemporaries, but technically more highly developed, more circumspect, and more refined. Abu Hanifa used his personal judgment (ra’y) and conclusions by analogy (qiyaas) to the extent customary in the schools of religious law in his time. He was inclined to abandon the traditional doctrine for the sake of “isolated” traditions from the Prophet, traditions related by single individuals in any one generations, such as began to become current in Islamic religious science during the lifetime of Abu Hanifa, in the first half of the second century A.H.

As a theologian, too, Abu Hanifa has exercised a considerable influence. He is the eponym of a popular tradition of dogmatic theology that lays particular stress on the ideas of the community of the Muslims, of its unifying principle, the Sunna, of the majority of the faithful who follow the middle of the road and avoid extremes, and that relies on scripture rather than on rational proofs.

Another title that was ascribed to Abu Hanifa is the Fiqh al-Akbar. But the so-called Fiqh al-Akbar II and the Wasiyyat Abi Hanifa are not by Abu Hanifa.

The later enemies of Abu Hanifa, in order to discredit him, taxed him not only with extravagant opinions derived from the principles of the Murji’a [place of reference] but with all kinds of heretical doctrines that he could not possibly have held. For example, they ascribed to him the doctrine that Hell was not eternal; or the opinion that it was lawful to revolt against a government.

Under the growing pressure of traditions his followers, starting with Yusuf, the son of Abu Yusuf, collected the traditions from the Prophet that Abu Hanifa had used in his legal reasoning. With the growth of spurious information, typical of a certain aspect of Islamic law, the number of these Traditions grew, too until Abu ‘l-Mu’ayyad Mohammad b. Mahmud al-Khwarizimi (d. 655 AH/1257 AD) collected fifteen different versions into one work (Jami’ Masanid Abu Hanifa, Hyderabad 1332 AD]. We are still able to distinguish and to compare the several versions, but none of them is an authentic work of Abu Hanifa.