History

Over time it became inevitable, however, that local concerns and customs would engender different interpretations of law.  Different legal systems began to develop in several regions. There is no official clerical class, doctrinal council, or sole spiritual authority in Islamic society.  The formalization of Islamic law was therefore organic and multi-faceted.  Four schools of Sunni law exist today. Developed through generations of students and scholars, these four "schools of law," or madhahib in Arabic, are named for the teachers whose approach to hadith and religious practice was later elaborated on. It is important to remember that these schools are not distinguished from one another along doctrinal lines; they differ, rather, in terms of the execution of certain ritual and practical aspects of Islam and in their approaches to the interpretation of sources. Adherents of each Sunni school all regard one another as valid. The four remaining schools of Sunni law and their eponymous founders are:

  1. The Hanafi School, named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767)
  2. The Maliki School, named after Malik ibn Anas (d. 796)
  3. The Shafi‘i School, named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820)
  4. The Hanbali School, named after Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855)

Al-Shafi‘i (the Shafi'i School) in particular had an enormous impact on the formalization of Sunni approaches to Islamic law, arguing for the primacy of the Quran, followed by the hadith. If those two sources failed to produce adequate guidance on a matter, a qadi was to seek the guidance of the consensus, called ijma‘, of other legal scholars. Only as a final recourse should a qadi rely upon his own judgment in finding some analogous precedent.  Originally, this inspired some controversy, as other jurists were more comfortable resorting to their own judgment, or ra'y, in times of necessity. Camps termed the ahl al-hadith ("proponents of tradition") and the ahl al-ra'y ("proponents of reason") argued over the validity of their differing approaches. In spite of these controversies, Al-Shafi‘i had a major and lasting impact on Sunni Islam.


Study Questions:
     1.     What are the theological implications of following the Sunni tradition?
     2.     How did Sunni law build upon pre-existing norms?
     3.     Why was geography a factor in Sunni law consistency?
     4.     Why did the four schools of law develop? Which has had the most lasting impact on the Sunni tradition?

Back to Religion Library