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Abu Hanifa, al-Nuʿman ibn Thabit

The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Legal History

Hiroyuki Yanagihashi

Abu Hanifa, al-Nuʿman ibn Thabit 

(c.a.h. 80/699 c.e.a.h. 150/767 c.e.).

Abu Hanifa was a theologian and the eponym of the Hanafi school of law. His grandfather Zuta, who lived in Kabul, was captured and brought as a slave of an Arab tribe to Kufa, where he was manumitted. Like his father Thabit, Abu Hanifa was a silk merchant. Beside engaging in business, he attended the circle of Hammad ibn Abi Sulayman, who was an authoritative jurist of Kufa, in 718 or 720. After Hammad died in 737, Abu Hanifa became the leader of his master's circle. Toward the end of his life he was summoned by the second Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–775), who ap-pointed him as the judge of Baghdad and then imprisoned him, reportedly because of his refusal to take up the office. It is contested whether he died in prison or after his release.

Although medieval Muslims regarded Abu Hanifa as one of the founders of the Hanafi school of law along with his immediate disciples Abu Yusuf (731?–798) and al-Shaybani (750–805), he did not elaborate a whole system of law. One of his contemporaries reportedly stated that he was not a faqīh (jurisprudent) but a mufti (legal adviser). In fact, in many individual cases he adopted a solution deduced by way of istiḥsān (juridical preference) instead of a systematic solution, taking into consideration the social practice or the interest of the parties concerned. Such a utilitarian approach may have derived from his experiences as a merchant. His utilitarian approach to law was probably in any case the main reason he often changed his legal opinions and composed no legal work: he would have considered it inappropriate to fix a rule, as the solution to be adopted for similar cases must differ from one case to another in order to best serve the human interests. His adversaries accused him of unrestrained use of raʾy (personal reasoning) because of his frequent recourse to istiḥsān and, notably, his disregard of prophetic hadiths. Some traditionists (specialists in hadith) vehemently criticized him for adopting, whether intentionally or in ignorance, solutions opposed to those dictated by prophetic hadiths. Their accusation culminated after his death in the antagonism between the rationalist parties represented by the Hanafis and those who held that the law must rest squarely on the revealed texts (the Qur’anic texts and prophetic hadith). He is known, however, to have heard hadith from a number of reputed traditionists. In view of the rapid growth in the number of hadiths put into circulation after his death, his posthumous reputation as a poor traditionist appears to be exaggerated. Shortly after his death his disciples, in particular al-Shaybani, committed his teachings to writing, for they felt it necessary to fix his teachings as they were disseminated and his followers were appointed as judges in various parts of the Islamic world.


Hallaq, Wael B. Authority, Continuity, and Change in Islamic Law. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chapter two is dedicated to the analysis of the process in which their images as accomplished jurists were projected backward to the founders of the schools of law.Find this resource:

    Yanagihashi, Hiroyuki. A History of the Early Islamic Law of Property: Reconstructing the Legal Development, 7th–9th Centuries. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2004.Find this resource:

      Hiroyuki Yanagihashi