HANAFITE MAḎHAB, a school of Sunni jurisprudence named after Abu Ḥanifa Noʿmān b. Ṯābet (q.v.; 80-150/699-767), an early Kufan jurist and theologian of Persian descent. The Hanafite law-school (maḏhab) grew out of the ancient “school” of Kufa in which Abu Ḥanifa was a leading influence. Although he did not leave behind any writings on feqh (q.v.), he did attract a number of disciples, among whom were the transmitters of his teachings, namely Abu Yusof Yaʿqub b. Ebrāhim (d. 182/798) and Moḥammad Šaybāni (d. 189/805). It is only through the writings of these students that the teachings of Abu Ḥanifa himself came to form the basis of an identifiable school of jurisprudence. Of the two leading disciples of Abu Ḥanifa, less is known of Abu Yusof. Among the works attributed to him in Ebn al-Nadim’s Fehrest (ed. Tajaddod, p. 256-57) only his Ketāb al-ḵarāj has survived; it is largely devoted to questions of taxation and fiscal administration. From those parts of the work that bear on legal questions as well as from other early legal and biographical sources (Sezgin, GAS I, pp. 419-21), it is clear that Abu Yusof, while continuing the main thrust of his master’s teaching, did diverge from the latter in several ways. He placed greater emphasis on the Hadith as a source of law than Abu Ḥanifa seems to have done; he relied less on individual reason (raʾy) in the resolution of legal questions; and finally, his willingness to change his position, particularly on questions of application, suggests a greater degree of flexibility. Joseph Schacht has suggested that this flexibility was due, in some measure, to his experience as a judge faced with the need for solutions to concrete legal questions (Schacht, 1950, pp. 301-6; 1964, pp. 44-45).

But it is essentially through the works attributed to Šaybāni that the judicial opinions developed by Abu Ḥanifa and his Kufan circle are known. While much of Šaybāni’s substantial literary output (Sezgin, GAS I, pp. 421-33) was devoted to the transmission of the views of earlier members of the school, it is clear that Šaybāni’s own contribution was more than as merely a transmit-ter (Schacht, 1950, p. 360ff.); therefore, it is with good reason that he has generally been classified among the founders of the Hanafite maḏhab. Among his works, the following came to constitute a kind of canon within the school, whose transmission was deemed to be a sacred duty: (1) Ketāb al-aṣl (known also under the title of al-mabsuṭ), a short but seminal work on Hanafite law, the memorization of which has been considered sufficient to qualify one as a mojtahed; (2) Ketāb al-jāmeʿ al-kabir; (3) Ketāb al-jāmeʿ al-ṣaḡir; (4) Ketāb al-siār al-kabir; and (5) Ketāb al-siār al-ṣaḡir, which has been translated into English by Majid Khadduri (1966). A number of the shorter treatises attributed to him (e.g. his Ketāb ejtehād al-raʾy, Ketāb al-esteḥsān and Ketāb oṣul al-feqh) reflect an interest in legal theory as opposed to practice. In particular, Šaybāni devoted considerable attention to the question of the respective roles of individual reasoning (raʾy) and Hadith in the elaboration of feqh, insisting that the two could complement each other. At the same time, he went to considerable lengths to justify his legal doctrines on the basis of Hadith, especially those traced back to the Prophet. In contrast to Abu Yusof, Šaybāni accorded a higher degree of authority to Hadith attributed to the Prophet than he did to those traced back to the Companions (ṣaḥāba). At the same time, according to Eric Chaumont, the juridical reasoning employed by Šaybāni was considerably “more rigorous and systematic than that of Abū Ḥanifa and Abū Yūsof or Mālik” (Chaumont, p. 394). He also advocated a stricter kind of qiās (analogical reasoning) and, in this respect, reflected a position very close to that favored by Šāfeʿi in his Resāla. In general, it can be said that Šaybāni represents the beginning of a transition from the local schools of the early period to the personal schools of the classical period.

Despite certain differences within the maḏhab on questions of doctrine, Hanafism did come to represent a relatively coherent body of legal doctrine already quite early on. The notion of raʾy played an important role in Hanafite thought from the beginning, but it would be wrong to suppose, as is sometimes suggested in secondary sources, that raʾy implied a certain reticence regarding the use of Hadith. As Abd-Allah and others have shown, the emphasis on raʾy was combined with a systematic reliance on Hadith (Abd-Allah, 1978, I, pp. 121 ff.). For Hanafism, raʾy and Hadith formed part of an integral whole. Undoubtedly, the single most distinctive feature of Hanafite legal theory is the significant role given to qiās, or analogical reasoning, a legal procedure rejected by Zahirites and Imami Shiʿites and allowed only in a very limited sense by Hanbalites. For Hanafites, qiās was not just a method of reasoning, it was, as Abd-Allah has pointed out, a method of generalization that enabled the school to extrapolate from the Koran and the Hadith a set of general, normative legal principles. While its heavy emphasis on qiās gave to Hanafite thought a certain tendency towards systemization and reification, Hanafites were, on the whole, sensitive to the need to maintain flexibility particularly in the application of the law; to an important extent this was achieved through the concepts of esteḥsān (preferred exceptional ruling) and ḥial (legal stratagems). What distinguished Hanafite jurisprudence from that of the other Sunni schools was not primarily its use of these concepts—after all, they were hardly exclusive to their school—but rather the way in which they were interpreted and applied. (For a systematic treatment of Hanafite law, see Abu Zahrā, pp. 234 ff. See also Abd-Allah, I, pp. 147-88, for a more detailed comparison of the legal theory of the four Sunni schools.)

The majority of those associated with the Hanafite maḏhab in the early period, especially those in positions of authority (including such prominent figures as Abu Ḥanifa, Abu Yusof, and Šaybāni), identified themselves with the teaching of moderate Murjiʿism, a politico-religious movement which professed that one’s status as a Muslim depended exclusively on one’s faith, or confession of belief, and not at all on one’s actual deeds. While the precise historical reasons for this preference for Murjiʿism have been debated at length, the fact that the mawāli (mainly of Persian background in the early period) were well represented in both Hanafite and Murjiʿite circles may partially explain the connection. What is clear is that already during the lifetime of Abu Ḥanifa, the Hanafite and Murjiʿite movements spread eastward into Khurasan and Transoxiana frequently through the efforts of the very same individuals, a number of whom, like Abu Ḥanifa himself, were of Persian origin. Among the more important, one may mention especially Abu’l Hoḏayl Zofar ʿAnbari, Abu Moṭiʿ Balḵi (q.v.) and Abu Moqātel Samarqandi, all younger contemporaries of Abu Ḥanifa. It was the establishment of a strong Hanafite-Murjiʿite presence in the east, especially among the rapidly increasing mawāli population, that facilitated the eventual spread of Hanafism to the Turks. It was natural that the Samanids, given their power base in the east and their Persian background, should embrace both Hanafism and Murjiʿism. Later, the Saljuqs also became champions of the Hanafite maḏhab, along with Mātu-ridi theology, which had formed in Hanafite circles in Transoxiana under the influence of later permutations of Murjiʿism. Maturidism, though close to Ashʿarism on a number of points, differed with regard to the question of the divine attributes (ṣefāt), freewill, and the relationship between faith and works (cf. Madelung, “Māturīdiyya,” EI2VI, pp. 847-48). The westward expansion of the Saljuqs in the 5th/11th and 6th/12th centuries enabled Hanafism of the eastern variety, with its Persian and Turkish character, to become firmly established in the west, especially in the cities of western Persia, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia. The eastern roots of the Ottoman dynasty also explain its adoption of the Hanafite maḏhab, a connection that was to remain intact until the demise of the empire in the early 20th century. Although it was not uncommon for Hanafite jurists in the 4th/10th, 5th/11th and 6th/12th centuries to identify with one of the other schools of theology, the Hanafite connection with Murjiʿism and Maturidism was to remain firm in the subsequent centuries (Madelung, 1971, pp. 109-68). From eastern Persia and Transoxiana, Hanafism found its way into India, on the one hand, and into Central Asia and western China, on the other.

The legal works of Šaybāni, Helāl b. Yaḥyā (d. 245/859), Abu Bakr Ḵaṣṣāf (d. 261/874) and others of the early period formed the basis for the work of some of the most important Hanafite jurists of the classical period, among whom the following are representative: Abu Jaʿfar Ṭaḥāwi (d. 321/933), the author of several works of law, especially his al-Moḵtaṣar fi’l-feqh, which set forth a decidedly traditionalist interpretation of Hanafite law; Ḥakim al-Šāhed (d. 334/945), author of a widely used abridgment of the principal legal works of Šaybāni under the title of al-Kāfi; al-Qoduri (d. 428/1036), whose famous Moḵtaṣar formed the basis for a number of later works of Hanafite jurisprudence, and Abu Bakr Saraḵsi (d. 483/1090), who produced an important commentary on the Kāfi of Ḥakim al-Šāhed.

These works of the classical period, however, were gradually overtaken and eventually replaced by a number of later handbooks and commentaries—a phenomenon that can be observed in all of the medieval schools of law. The most important of these later handbooks was the celebrated Hedāya of Borhān-al-Din Marḡenāni (d. 593/1197), on which numerous commentaries were written over the next several centuries (Brockelmann, GAL I, pp. 376-87; Suppl., I, pp. 644-49; tr. Charles Hamilton, 1791). Then there was the Kanz-al-daqāʾeq of Abu’l-Barakāt Nasafi (d. 710/1310), which formed the basis for a number of commentaries, especially in the 9th/14th and 10th/15th centuries (EI2VII, p. 96; Brokelmann, GAL II, pp. 250-53). During the Ottoman period the Moltaqa al-abḥor of Ebrāhim Ḥalabi (d. 956/1549) became one of the most popular handbooks of Hanafite law used in the Ottoman Empire.

Hanafite jurists were equally productive in the field of oṣul al-feqh (the principles of jurisprudence). Among the works in this branch of Hanafite jurisprudence, mention must be made of the Kanz al-woṣul of Bazdawi (d. 428/1089), the Keṭab al-oṣul of Saraḵsi, the Madār al-Anwār of Abu’l-Barakāt Nasafi, and the Tawżiḥ of ʿObayd-Allāh Maḥbubi (d. 747/1346). 

The first attempt to codify Hanafite law, indeed, Islamic law in any form, occurred in 1877 under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire. Since then, however, and particularly in the 20th century, the trend toward codification, normally carried out through the state, has become perhaps the most noticeable feature of current legal practice within the Muslim world. Although perhaps inevitable given modern conditions, this trend does mark a significant break with Islamic jurisprudence, both at the level of practice and theory (Meyer, pp. 177-98).


Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, “Mālik’s Concept of ʿAmal in the Light of Mālikī Legal Theory,” Ph.D. diss., 2 vols., University of Chicago, 1978.

Abu Yusof, Eḵtelāf Abi Ḥanifa wa-Ebn Abi Layla, Cairo, 1357/1938.

Moḥammad Abu Zahrā, Abu Ḥanifa: ḥayātoh wa-ʿaṣroh, ārāʾoh wa-feqhoh, Cairo, 1385/1965.

Ḵaṭib Baḡdādi, Taʾriḵ Baḡdād XIII, pp. 323-454.

Brockelmann, GAL I, pp. 372-83; II, pp. 196-98.

Ebn Abi’l-Wafāʾ, al-Jawāhir al-mużiʾa, Hyderabad, 1332/1914.

Eric Chaumont, “Shaybānī,” in EI2, IX, pp. 393-94.

Charles Hamilton, tr., The Hedaya, or Guide: A Commentary on the Mussulman Laws, London, 1791.

Willi Heffening and Joseph Schacht, “Ḥanafiyya,” in EI2 III, pp. 162-64.

Wilferd Madelung, Der Imām al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen, Berlin, 1965.

Idem, “The Spread of Māturīdism and the Turks,” Actas do IV Congresso de Estudos Árabes e Islâmicos Coimbra-Lisboa 1968, Leiden, 1971, pp. 109-68.

Idem, “The Early Murjiʿa in Khurāsān and Transoxania and the Spread of Ḥanafism,” Der Islam 59, 1982, pp. 32-39.

Idem, Religious Schools and Sects in Medieval Islam, London, 1985 (includes reprints of the above two articles).

W. Madelung, “Mātūrīdiyya,” in EI2VI, pp. 847-48.

A. E. Meyer, “The Sharīʿah: A Methodology or a Body of Substantive Rules?” in Nicholas Heer, ed., Islamic Law and Jurisprudence: Studies in Honor of Farhat J. Ziadeh, Seattle and London, 1990, pp. 177-98.

Joseph Schacht, Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, Oxford, 1950. Idem, “Abū Ḥanīfa,”in EI2I, pp. 123-24.

Idem, An Introduction to Islamic Law, Oxford, 1964.

Sezgin, GAS I, pp. 409-57.

William Montgomery Watt, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh, 1973.

Arent Jan Wensinck, The Muslim Creed, London, 1932. 

(Merlin Swartz)

Originally Published: December 15, 2003

Last Updated: March 6, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XI, Fasc. 6, pp. 651-653

Cite this entry:

Merlin Swartz, “HANAFITE MAḎHAB,” Encyclopædia Iranica, XI/6, pp. 651-653, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/hanafite-madhab (accessed on 30 December 2012).