What are the five schools of Islamic thought?

Schools of thought (madhahib) are the paths people follow to the Holy Qur'an and Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hf). Obviously, these schools of thought were founded considerably after the death of the Prophet (pbuh&hf) and, in fact, never took shape until the time of the Umayyid Caliphate. The common phrase ahl al-sunnah wal-jama'ah, for example, became prevalent during the third century hijri. By the year 250 h., the four Sunni schools of thought were being popularized and patronized during the 'Abbasid Caliphate. The Shi'a school of thought, on the other hand, continued its growth and progress after Imam 'Ali (pbuh) through his descendants who were connected to each other through a chain of narration and knowledge. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hf) and the designated imams in the Shi'a school of thought were shielded by Allah from any sin, religious error, or forgetfulness.

Today, the five schools of Islamic thought accepted by all Muslims are the Ja'fari, comprising 23% of the Muslims; the Hanafi, comprising 31% of the Muslims; the Maliki, comprising 25% of the Muslims; the Shafi'i, comprising 16% of the Muslims; and the Hanbali, comprising 4% of the Muslims. The remaining small percentage follows minority schools such as the Zaydi and the Isma'ili. [8]


The Ja'fari school of thought was headed by Imam Ja'far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (pbuh) who lived from 83 h. to 148 h. He was born in and died in the holy city of Madinah and is the sixth imam of the twelve designated imams of the school of ahl al-bayt. Although the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) was developed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hf) and his successors (the imams), the fiqh as taught by the Shi'a did not have the opportunity to be presented to the masses because of the political predicament that the ahl al-bayt suffered from under the rulers for many centuries. Because they refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Umayyid and 'Abbasid caliphs and their governments, the imams of the ahl al-bayt and their followers were exposed to tremendous harassment and persecution at the hands of the caliphs. Once the Umayyid government became weak, Imam Ja'far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (pbuh) found a golden opportunity to formulate and spread the tradition of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hf) and his family (pbut). At one time, four thousand scholars, Qur'anic commentators, historians, and philosophers attended his classes in the holy city of Madinah. Therefore, he was able to pass down the authentic teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hf) and crystallize them in what came to be known as al-fiqh al-ja'fari, the Ja'fari jurisprudence. His teachings were collected in 400 usul (foundations) which were written by his students and encompass hadith, Islamic philosophy, theology, Qur'anic commentary, literature, and ethics.

After a period of time, three distinguished scholars categorized these 400 usul in four books which are the main sources of hadith in the Shi'a school of thought: al-Kafi by al-Kulayni (d. 329 h.), Man La Yahduruh al-Faqih by al-Suduq (d. 381 h.), and al-Tahdib and al-Istibsar by al-Tusi (d. 460 h.). Those three scholars were known as the "three Muhammads" since their first names were all "Muhammad." While those three books are the main sources of hadith for the Shi'a, their authors still did not label their books "sahih." Although they did their best to gather only authentic traditions, if a particular tradition contradicts the Holy Qur'an then it cannot be accepted as legal and valid. Hadith, according to the Ja'fari school of thought, are accepted only if the Holy Qur'an verifies them, since the Holy Qur'an is the only certain source of guidance.


The Hanafi school of thought was headed by Imam al-Nu'man ibn Thabit (Abu Hanifa) who lived from 80 h. to 150 h. Imam Abu Hanifa was born to a non-Arab father, raised in Kufa, and died in Baghdad. This school of thought prevailed during the time of the 'Abbasid Empire when a student of Imam Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf al-Qadi, became the head of the judiciary department and the highest judge and so spread this madhhab, in particular during the caliphates of al-Mahdi, al-Hadi, and al-Rashid. No other man was as close to the 'Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid as was Abu Yusuf al-Qadi, but the 'Abbasid caliph al-Mansur also worked hard to support and consolidate Imam Abu Hanifa's school of thought and to spread his madhhab in the face of the growing popularity of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (pbuh). Imam Abu Hanifa studied under the instruction of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (pbuh) for two years [9] and said about him: "I have not seen one more knowledgeable than Ja'far ibn Muhammad, and, indeed, he is the most knowledgeable one in the nation." [10]


The Maliki school of thought was headed by Imam Malik ibn Anas al-Asbahi who lived from 93 h. to 179 h. He was born in the holy city of Madinah, and his fame spread throughout the Hijaz on account of his quarrel with Imam Abu Hanifa, for Imam Malik was the leader of the school of tradition (hadith) while Imam Abu Hanifa was the leader of the school of opinion (ra'i); most Muslim governments were supportive of Imam Abu Hanifa. Imam Malik joined the 'Alawiyiin, the descendants of Imam 'Ali, and received his knowledge from Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (pbuh), but thereafter, inconsistencies marked his life. At one point he was oppressed: having earned the anger of the government, he was dragged through the streets by his clothes and lashed. In 148 h., his fortunes reversed, and he regained his popularity and dominance, and the 'Abbasids tried to set him up as a popular reference for the nation in giving verdicts and injunctions. The 'Abbasid caliph al-Mansur asked him to write al-Muwatta', his book of fiqh which contains the principles of the Maliki school of thought. Furthermore, during the hajj season, the official announcer of the government proclaimed that no one had the authority to give fatawa (religious decisions) except Imam Malik. The 'Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid sat on the floor to listen to him, and the caliphate in general exalted him to the point where they said that no book on earth - except the Holy Qur'an - was more authentic than Imam Malik's. Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi says that two schools of thought were spread due to the government and the sultan: the school of Imam Abu Hanifa, since Abu Yusuf al-Qadi only appointed Hanafi judges; and the school of Imam Malik ibn Anas, for a student of Imam Malik, Yahya ibn Yahya, was so respected in the caliph's palace that no judge was ever appointed in Andalus without his consultation and advice.


The Shafi'i school of thought was headed by Imam Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i who lived from 150 h. to 198 h. Imam Shafi'i was born in the Hijaz, and his school of thought emerged in Egypt. At the time of the Fatimid Dynasty, the Egyptians were mainly followers of the ahl al-bayt, and the teachings of the ahl al-bayt were being taught in Al-Azhar University. Then Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi came and waged an extensive war against the school of ahl al-bayt, banning the teaching of their madhhab in al-Azhar and resurrecting the other madhahib, including that of Imam Shafi'i, who was killed in Egypt in 198 h.


The Hanbali school of thought was headed by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal who lived from 164 h. to 241 h. He was born in and died in Baghdad and only gained popularity in Najd (a region of the Arabian Peninsula) due to the ideas of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. The Hanbali madhhab spread in Najd primarily due to the teachings of Ahmad ibn 'Abd al-Halim al-Dimishqi ibn Taymiyyah (661 h. - 728 h.) and his student ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya.

A close study of the history of the madhahib and a search into the reasons for their birth, existence, and spread reveals that the various governments were the main factor in the birth and spread of these schools. Governmental aid took physical and financial forms: establishing schools, sponsoring books of fiqh, adopting and sponsoring official madhahib, and giving freedom to the founders and scholars of the some "official" madhahib. This trend has occurred in almost every religion worldwide; for example, one might compare this trend in Islam to the birth of the Anglican Church in 1534 AD by the English king Henry VIII, who made it the official religious tradition of the state, thus giving it 55 million followers.

History tells that the school of ahl al-bayt suffered extreme oppression, tyranny, and discrimination at the hands of the Umayyid and 'Abbasid caliphs. But in spite of oppression, by the divine will of Allah, the school of ahl al-bayt reached a climax during the caliphate of al-Ma'mun, and Shi'ism reached so far into the dignitaries in the government that al-Ma'mun himself was forced to show deep sympathy towards the 'Alawiyiin, the descendants of Imam 'Ali (pbuh), as well as an inclination towards Shi'ism to the point that he invited Imam 'Ali ibn Musa al-Rida (pbuh), the eighth imam of the school of ahl al-bayt, to be his successor - a position which Imam al-Rida (pbuh) declined.


[8] Statistics taken from the Bulletin of Affiliation: Al-Madhhab - Schools of Thought, vol. 17 no. 4 (December 1998), p. 5

[9] Min Amali al-Imam al-Sadiq, Kalili, 4:157

[10] Tadhkirat al-Hiffadh, 1:166; Asna al-Matalib, p. 55


Featured Views

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on Prophet Muhammad

(1869-1948) Indian thinker, statesman, and nationalist leader.Father of the Nation-India

q "....I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These, and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every trouble."

[Young India (periodical), 1928, Volume X]