The Shafi’i School

Part 12 in a series

Today we will be covering the Shafi’i school of fiqh. This school was founded by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, an imam who studied under Imam Malik (of the Maliki school). The Shafi’i school is prevalent in eastern Africa, southeast Asia and Indonesia, as well as among Kurds in Iraq and the vicinity.

Imam Shafi’i rose to prominence after Hanafi and Malik, and thus benefited from a society in which fiqh was being studied and developed by experts. However, at the time there still was no rigorous methodology, nor a clear definition of the sources of legal authority or the proper practice for determining rulings. Shafi’i set out to change that. His great work was a book known as al-Risala (“the message/letter”), which laid out the foundations of fiqh and attempted to systematize the practice of jurisprudence. The four primary sources of Sunni law — Quran, hadith, ijma and qiyas — were defined in al-Risala, along with a number of lesser topics. The book offers guidance for how to deal with disagreement, juristic preference and the like. It is considered the seminal work of fiqh and the foundation on which modern Islamic jurisprudence is based.

Shafi’i was also known for his great eloquence and his mastery of Arabic writing. His poetry was nearly as respected as his juristic writings, and Ibn Hisham, who studied with him, said that “I never heard[Imam Shafi’i] use anything other than a word which, carefully considered, one would not find a better word in the entire Arabic language.” He frequently attracted Bedouins to his lectures who, while not interested in the legal content of his speech, marveled at his use of language. He was known to disdain dialectical theology (kalam), once saying “It is better for a scholar of knowledge to give a fatwa after which he is said to be wrong than to theologize and then be said to be a heretic (zindîq). I hate nothing more than theology and theologians.”

The Shafi’i school embraces the four primary sources of sharia, ranking them Quran, then sunnah, then ijma, then qiyas. They do not totally reject innovation (bid’a) but only accept it if it conforms to sunnah. Both istihsan and istislah are rejected by the Shafi’is as sources of law, as they are considered too subjective and bound by human opinion. As a result of this, the Shafi’i school was largely supplanted by the Hanafi school, which was preferred by rulers due to the flexibility it afforded them.

The Shafi’i school is considered to be stricter than the Hanafi school, but not so strict as the Hanbali school. Shafi’i himself is an important historical figure to all Muslims, not just for his school but because of his major contributions to the science of usul al-fiqh.

As always, please let me know any questions, comments or suggestions you may have.