The Great Imam: Imam Abu Hanifa
By: Nadira Ansari
One day a young man was passing by. He was feeling hungry and saw some apples had fallen on the ground near an apple tree. He picked up an apple and ate it. After a little while he realized he should have taken permission before eating the fruit, otherwise it would be haram for him. So then he looked for the owner and saw a small house in the vicinity of the village. He knocked on the door and old man came out. The young man told him that he ate an apple without permission and asked for forgiveness. The owner said he could not forgive him. The man begged, Please forgive me I will do whatever you say to get your forgiveness. The man replied that he would have to marry his daughter. The young man happily agreed. But the owner added, but she is blind and dumb. The young man began to hesitate. The owner reminded him, I can only forgive you if you accept my offer. The young man reluctantly agreed. After the nikah, the young man met the bride, she was beautiful and without flaw. He returned to the owner of the house, and told him that the girl must have changed. The owner replied, No this is the right girl. She is blind – because she never saw any haram from her eyes. She is deaf – because she never heard any haram or spoke any haram. The owner continued to speak to him and said, Actually, I liked your character, someone who cares about such a small thing will certainly take good care of my daughter. I just tested you by saying such things about her. The young couple lived happily there and gave birth to a son whose name was Noman ibn Sabith. This man later became famous as Imam Abu Hanifa.
Abu Hanifa was forever famous by his kuniya. His grandparents moved from Persia to Kufa – a major city of Iraq. Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) was a friend of his grandfathers. He was born in year 80 hijra of the Islamic Calendar. It was the time of Taba’een. He met one of the Sahabis, Anas ibn Malik, in his life time. He was very talented from an early age. When he was in his teens an atheist was sent to Kufa from Rome. He started gathering a crowd in an open area and asked 3 questions. No one was able to answer them. One day Abu Hanifa decided to go over and speak with the atheist. He asked, What is your first question?The atheist said, Where is your God? Abu Hanifa said, Bring a candle and light it. Now tell me what is the direction of light. The atheist replied, Everywhere. Abu hanifa replied, Simple. God is everywhere. And then he recited the verse of the quran, ͞…Allah is the light of heavens and the world. Then the atheist asked the second question, What was before God? Abu Hanifa said, Count down from 10 to 1. The atheist counted and stopped at 1, and Abu Hanifa asked, What comes next after 1?The atheist replied saying nothing. Then, Abu Hanifa said, God is one and nothing comes before him.Then, Abu Hanifa said, You have been on the pulpit and asking me questions, this is not fair, come down so I can stand where you are. When they switched spots, the atheist said, What is your God doing now? Abu Hanifa replied, He is raising the rank of a believer and lowering the rank of the unbeliever.
His father owned a small shop of silk in Kufa for a living. Abu Hanifa was very talented he used to give his opinions for increasing business even when he was in his teens. He started working with his father and he wanted to do everything in the best possible way. So he used to go to the silk market everyday to learn the rules of business. He introduced the idea that the quality of cloth is just as important for the presentation must be good as well. So he improved the small shop and turned into a big shop and it moved to the center of the city and became successful. Then he became very wealthy and famous in his early twenties.
How he became a Faqih
This is a great example of the way Allah’s will works. One day Abu Hanifa was going home after his work. Imam shaabi was also on his own way home. They crossed paths and this meeting changed Abu Hanifa’s life. Imam Shaabi asked, “what do you do in your free time?” Abu Hanifa replied, “I go to the market, then to my shops”. Then he was asked, “There are many scholars, do you have any teachers of the deen?” He then went on to tell Abu Hanifa, “You are far too talented – you must use your time for the deen”. Then Abu Hanifa agreed to specialize in one thing and he researched about the different branches of the deen like Quran, hadih, language, poetry, etc. He also explored the idea of being a judge to help people know what is halal and what is haram as this would benefit the people. So he went to Imam Shaabi to tell him about his decision, and Imam Shaabi said, “I wanted you to be that but I did not impose it on you”.
The most knowledgeable teacher at the time was Hammad ibn Sulaimain (RA). He learned from the companion of the prophet, Abdullah ibn Masood (RA). Rasoolullah was the teacher of Abdullah ibn Masud. Abu Hanifa went to Hammad and asked about his business. Abu Hanifa said I will do both. He used to read every day between Maghrib and Isha and whenever he got free time he used to go to his house. The teacher used to give 3 problems to solve and remained to be his teacher for 18 years. After his death he started his own halaqa at the age of 40.
Young abu hanifa has begun his quest of knowledge from many, many teachers. His teachers included many prestigious scholars of that time whose sanad went back to a number of companions (RA). He himself was blessed with meeting the companions – Anas ibn Malik, Abdullah ibn Afwa and Sahl ibn Saad thus gaining the rank of the Tabaee (successor to companions). He went to Makkah and learned hadith from ata ibn rabah, student of Abdullah ibn Abbas who educated him with great care and attention. He became so proficient that the teacher in his lifetime gave him the authority to exercise personal judgement and ruling. When Abu Hanifa started his own halaqa he made many changes.all ofthem were introduced first time in Islamic history. He made a bench of experts. These people had expertise in Quran, Hadith, Science, Math and Language. He solved problems as they presented. Imam took the opinion of every mujtahid. Abu Hanifa gave his opinion and they worked in a group setting. The answer was confirmed when 35 people reached an agreement consistent with the Quran, Sunnah, and words of sahabah.
Abu Hanifa realized fiqh is not a one person thing. He worked from the age of 40 until 70. Thousands of students attended his circle in the mosque of kufa. People of his times were very talented in different cities and those who were jealous spread rumors about him that he is doing bidaa. Once Abdullah ibn Mubarak, student of Imam Abu Hanifa, went back to his country met Imam ozaiee who was against Abu hanifa. He gave a booklet of the solutions of some problem written by noman ibn Sabith. He studied and asked who is this talented person if you could gain knowledge then go and learn from him.
Upon finding Nauman ibn Sabith was Abu Hanifa he changed his opinion and respected him very much. Imam Abu Hanifa took great care of talented boys and produced them as great teacher. He was the first to start grants or scholarships for talented but poor students. Imam Abu Yusuf was one of them who later became the supreme judge of Muslim empire. The other student Muhammad ibn ul hasan became the teacher of Imam Shafi. Abu Hanifa earned a lot of money through silk trade. 2 million per year. But used to keep 20,000 for his other expenses and gave all the money for charity and sadaqa, that’s why never pay zakat separately as no money was left at the end of the year.
Soon after, Abu Yusaf started his own halaqa in the same Masjid al Kufa. Abu Hanifa was well aware that Abu Yusaf was not capable just yet to run his own halaqa, but he remained patient and was not offended and chose not to confront him . Instead, Abu Hanifa decided to put Abu Yusaf’s knowledge to the test . Abu Hanifa did this by sending one of his students to go to Abu Yusaf’s halaqa with a problem, and instructed him to reply back with, “No, that is incorrect” with every solution . The student went to the halaqa and presented Abu Yusaf the problem: A man went to a tailor to shorten his thawb (traditional garment for men). The tailor agreed to complete the job for 1 dirham and promised to have it ready the next day. When the man returned to the tailor’s shop the next day to inquire about his thawb, the tailor refused that he was ever given a thawb for shortening. After few days, when the man was walking by the tailor’s shop, he noticed his thawb shortened and hung up for sale. He went inside the shop and demanded to be returned , to which the tailor obliged. Now the question is, should the tailor be given 1 dirham for the work he did on the tawb? Abu Yusaf replied by saying, “Yes, he did the work so he should be paid for it.” The student replied, “No, that is not the answer.” Abu Yusaf took a moment, thought about the answer and replied, “No, he should not be given the dirham because he tried to steal the thawb.” The student replied back by saying, “No, that is not the answer.” Abu Yusaf then tells the student to wait and went to abu hamifa to get the right answer. When he visits Abu Hanifa he realizes that he is not ready to hold his own halaqa. The correct answer to the issue as described by Abu Hanifa is that it all depends on the intention of Tailor when he accepted the thawb. Did he accept the thawb having the intention of stealing it? Or did he decide to steal it after making the alterations, when he thought he could make a bigger profit? If he had pure intentions of completing the transaction of returning the thawb once it was shortened then he deserves to get paid. Through this event we get a better understanding of how Abu Hanifa dealt with his subordinate in a practical manner and teaching him a lesson rather than scolding or insulting him for going against his wishes.
Abu Hanifa established his ideology of Fiqh based on a hadith narrated by Muadh ibn Jabl. When Rasul Allah (swt) sent Muadh on a mission to resolve an issue in Yemen, the Prophet asked him how he was going to deal with the situation. Muadh replied by saying that he was going to search for the answer starting from the book of Allah, and if he could not find it there, he would look for it in the hadith, and if even then the answer was not clear, he would do ijtihad (use my best judgment and opinion). Rasul Allah was very pleased with Muadh’s answer. Abu Hanifa used the same strategy when he needed to resolve a question about Fiqh. He used to say that if he cannot find the answer in the book of Allah or the hadith then he would use his own opinion, and if someone could prove his opinion to be incorrect with valid proof, he would then agree with the challenger.
The three regarded Imams followed the same system that Abu Hanifa established regarding Fiqh. Imam Shafaee (R.H) is known to have said that no one is more knowledgeable on the face of the earth regarding the knowledge of Fiqh than Abu Hanifa.
Once a group called Al-Khawarij claimed that Abu Hanifa was a Kafir. During Abu Hanifa’s halaqa they came in with an open sword with the intention to kill him. But before they did, they decided to test Abu Hanifa’s level of knowledge. They posed him the following question: There is a Janazah (funeral) of an alcoholic and an adulterer. Should we pray his Salat-ul-Janaza? At this moment, the men had a sword pointed at Abu Hanifa’s face. He ordered them to remove the sword and then he would answer. Abu Hanifa realized that these men were there to kill him and the question was worded in a way which baited him into giving a simple answer, which was something these men wanted. During debates a tactic that Abu Hanifa used was to answer a question with a question. He asked them, “I seem to have forgotten your question, did you say this man was a Christian or a Jew?” They replied saying that he was neither and that he was a Muslim. Abu Hanifa then replied, “If he was a Muslim then the answer is very easy, where will Muslims go after death? Allah (swt) says in the Quran that they (Muslims) are Allah’s servants and if He wills He can forgive, as Allah (swt) is the forgiver and merciful.” The men left saying to themselves that this man cannot be a Kafir since he talks with reason and they cannot refute the ayat of the Quran.
Once in Kufa, there was an Atheist sent by the Roman republic. In different parts of the city he used to gather a large crowd, stand above them and ask the Muslims 3 different questions to create doubt within the people. Usually the people were not able to answer his questions, but when Abu Hanifa happened to be passing by the large crowd, he challenged the Atheist to answer his questions. He looked at the young Abu Hanifa and asked him, “Where is Allah?” Abu Hanifa then asked someone to bring forward a lit candle. He then asked him, can you see where the light is shining? The light travels North, South, East and West. There is no place the light does not touch, and Allah is Noor, He is everywhere. The Atheist then asks, “Who was there before Allah?” To which Abu asked him to count backwards from 10. When he reached 1, Abu Hanifa asked him, “What comes before 1?” The Atheist did not have an answer. Abu Hanifa said, “There is nothing before 1, and Allah is One.” The Atheist then asked him his third question, “What is your Allah doing right now?” Abu Hanifa then told him to come off the stage that he had created and told him that to answer this question he must address him standing up. When Abu Hanifa got up on stage he answered, “Right now, my Allah is giving His believer a higher status in front of a disbeliever. He is the master of the universe, all-knowing and indeed very busy.” The Atheist got embarrassed and quickly left the crowd. Abu Hanifa was only 17 years old at the time.
Abu Hanifa used to say that whenever you are uncertain about an issue concerning the deen, your first source should be the Quran, and then followed by the Hadith, then opinion of the Sahabah, and then the research done and knowledge gathered by the scholars. He stated that if someone was to disprove his research and study of fiqh through knowledgeable facts and examples then he would change his stance on the subject, because he preferred the facts and knowledge over his own opinion. During Abu Hanifa’s time Iman Malik was the most renowned scholar in Madinah. Even though Imam Malik was known as the most knowledgeable and highly honored Imam of his time, Imam Abu Hanifa was not far behind and was very well respected by everyone because of his pursuit of answering questions that had not been answered yet. Abu Hanifa used to seek out question about situations which were not answered by the Quran and Hadith. He used to ask his students to formulate hypothetical situations so that if they would ever to occur, Abu Hanifa would already have an answer established after extensive research and study. Because of this practice a lot of questions that we deal with today which were not present during Abu Hanifa’s time have already been answered because of his research and scholarly opinion. In today’s world we are in dire need of scholars who can come forward and gain knowledge in the field of science and technology so that we may make intelligent decisions and live our lives correctly according to Islam in this modern era.
Abu Hanifa went through many trials and tribulations in the later parts of his life as well. When he got older, the Khalifa of his time asked Abu Hanifa to be the grand judge of his court. Abu Hanifa replied, “I am not worthy of this position.” The Khalifa got upset and retorted, “You lie!” Abu Hanifa quipped back saying, “In that case, a liar should never be a judge!” The Khalifa got angry and vowed that no matter what happens I will make sure that Abu Hanifa becomes judge. Abu Hanifa also took an oath saying he would never become one. Abu Hanifa knew that if he was to become judge, he would never be able pass fair judgments because the Khalifa would pressure him into passing judgments according to his own desire. Abu Hanifa had many followers and influence and he could never let himself be in a position where he would even accidently harm an innocent or pass a ruling which was unjust or incorrect. After constant refusal, the Khalifa got angry and ordered his guards to whip Abu Hanifa in the market place. After a week of torture he was brought back to the palace and Abu Hanifa still refused to accept the position. The Khalifa then ordered Abu Hanifa to be imprisoned until he decided to change his mind. Even though he was imprisoned, Abu Hanifa did not stop running his halaqah and asked his students to bring a set of issues so that they may get together close to his cell and solve them while he was in jail. When he was close to 70 years old he was set free, after refusing the Khalifa yet again, he was banned from passing any fatwas. Abu Hanifa was so loyal and respectful of the authority that once his son came with a problem which he needed a fatwa for, but Abu Hanifa refused and told him that he could not do so because the Khalifa had not given him the authority.
When Abu Hanifa lay on his death bed, he asked not to be buried in the common grave yard since the land being used belonged to someone else and was wrongfully stolen by the Khalifa. When the Khalifa heard about Abu Hanifa’s last words, he was full of sorrow and made dua for him and remarked that even with his dying breath he reminded him of his wrong doings. The Khalifa tried to live a more pious life after that. There were close to 50,000 attendees during Abu Hanifa’s funeral prayer. May Allah elevate Abu Hanifa’s ranks in al-akhirah for all that he has done for the ummah, and may Allah send us a scholar like him who can guide all Muslims into the righteous direction.