top of page




"Difference of opinion among my community is a sign of the bounty of God." - Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Islamic law and what it means to be a practising Muslim has changed and developed over centuries of thinking. Following the death of the prophet Muhammad pbuh, there have always been differences of opinion in how best to understand the message of God.

Different interpretations on what Islamic law should be, is reflected in the diverse range of schools of thought or ways of studying and practising Islam.

The common factor among the different groups is the Quran and the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) - Sunnah - as sources of information and guidance. Within Sunni and Shi'a Islam there are six main schools of Islamic law - fiqh:


  • The Hanbali School is named after Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 855)

  • The Hanafi School is named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767)

  • The Shafi'i is named after al-Shafi'I (d. 819)

  • The Maliki is named after Anas bin Malik (d. 795)


  • The Zaydi School is named after Zayd Ibn Ali (d. 740)

  • The Ja'fari School is named after Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 765)

There was a sweeping range of opinion in the first three centuries of Islamic history, and at one point, there were over 100 different schools of thought.


The Hanafi School is the oldest surviving school of Islamic law, and the one with the largest following.

It originated in Kufa, present day Iraq, but its influence spread to both the Mughal and Ottoman empires and can now be found from Turkey to Central Asia, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and as far as Western Europe and North America.

The school's founder, Abu Hanifa, was a trader as a young man. However, it seems he was not well suited to this career - he once demanded to pay five times the asking price from a woman selling silk at the market.

In 763 CE he was imprisoned for refusing to collaborate with a judiciary he considered corrupt. He died in prison four years later.

As well as using the Quran and the Prophet’s (pbuh) life as sources of guidance, this group also relied heavily on using logical arguments to find answers to social problems that also fitted in with their understanding of Islam.


The Shafi'i School also has a wide influence in Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

This school of thought is named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, a precocious student, who is described by historians as the master architect of Islamic law.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, with the aid of his peers, was to lay down the roots of a common framework for all schools of Islamic thought to follow when producing legal judgements on issues of faith and how it should be practised.


This school is named after Imam Anas bin Malik, 715 CE, who, to support his studies, sold the ceiling beams of his home to buy the necessary books.


He was an unwavering defender of personal freedom, famously issuing a fatwa that stated that no person should be forced to pledge allegiance to the ruling government in Medina, and was heavily flogged for doing so (although the authorities later apologised for their actions).


The Maliki School has its main following in Egypt, as well as having smaller groups of followers in Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, although it originated in Saudi Arabia in the city of Medina. When the Maliki School was formed the word Sunnah did not yet mean the ‘traditions' or ‘practice' of the Prophet (pbuh) specifically but also referred to the actions of the people of Medina at the time.


The Hanbali School was developed in Baghdad, although today the followers of the school are concentrated mainly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


The founder of the school, Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, was taught by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i, the founder of the Shafi'i School. There is therefore a direct link between the Shafi'i and the Hanbali school.


The Hanbali school derives its rulings almost solely from the Quran and Sunnah, which proves to be popular with groups of people wishing to return to a ‘purer' Islam (the Wahabi movement, for instance, emerged out of the Hanbali school). Other influential figures in the school were al-Kiraqi (d. 946), Ibn Qudama (d. 1223).[3], Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350).


For many Muslims the Quran is a book of divine poetry and guidance but it does not contain many Islamic rules.


Talal Asad is an anthropologist at the City University of New York who writes extensively on the subject of religion and says:


"Most Islamic rules are contained not in the Quran ('the recitation'), which Muslims believe to have been revealed by God through Gabriel, but in collections called hadith, which contain the exemplary sayings and doings of Muhammad and his companions."


In the words of the famous Muslim jurist al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Islamic laws should "seek the beneficial and avoid what is bad."


The fourteenth century Hanbali jurist Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya also agreed with this sentiment: "Every situation in which justice succumbs to tyranny, mercy to cruelty, goodness to corruption, wisdom to foolishness, has nothing in common with the Shari'ah."

bottom of page