Alexandra Tolhurst

Ibn Khaldun’s narrative on the history of Islamic law is one that paints the history as almost an intricate depiction of natural selection: one that started with many schools and religious scholars, but with passing time, rising dynasties and caliphs, and majority opinions, was reduced to four main schools of legal thought. Before we reach this reduction in the history, we first must talk about the rise of jurisprudence and the main ideas behind Islamic law.
The beginning of Islamic law can be traced to the Koran and the Sunna, which is where the laws of Islam are derived from. The original laws are derived from texts written in Arabic, which becomes important in the more recent history of Islamic law when many less scholars know Arabic. While the Koran cannot be disputed, the traditions, or Sunna, vary widely because of the reliability of the transmitters, but originally, the only differences in opinion that occurred in Muslim society were due to the need to know exactly what to reference in new cases that Muhammad himself was not there to give an answer for. This is what gave birth to the first “jurists” (though they were called readers at first) and marked the real beginning of Islamic law. Men who were deeply versed in the Koran and its ambiguity were the first to give legal decisions since they had learned from Muhammad himself or from His companions, which deemed them worthy. They were the ones called readers, who were by technical terms the first jurists, and were rare by the fact that they were literate.
Each playing a role in the rise of the schools of legal thought were the differences in opinion between the first religious scholars, the first ideas of the jurists, and mainly the rise of cities and literacy. With the rise of jurists and religious scholars came the add-on of the two less accepted approaches to jurisprudence: the use of opinion and analogy, highly used by the Iraqis, and the use of traditions, highly used by Hijazis. The first schools to form were the Iraqis, centered around Abu Hanifah; Hijazis, centered around Malik; Zahirites, centered around Dawud; and the Alids and Kharijites. Of these, the Hijazis and Malik was most followed, as Malik was a distinguished scholar in the religious law world at the time because he thought the practice of the Medinese was evidence for law, therefore he added a source of law. Following Malik, Shafi’I founded another school combining Hijazi and Iraqi schools of thought, who was then followed by Hanbal, then by Hanifah. Eventually, all schools that didn’t represent the use of opinion and analogy or tradition were abandoned, leaving the four main schools of legal thought recognized in the Muslim world: Hanbal’s school, Hanifah’s school, Shafi’I’s school, and Malik’s school.
Hanbal’s school of legal thought is mostly concentrated in Syria after a clash with Shi’i in Baghdad, and is known for the knowledge of the Sunna and the traditions. Hanifah’s school is wide-spread through India, China, and non-Arab countries. Malik’s school was prominent in Egypt until the Shi’I dynasty brought the return of a more orthodox law to Egypt, which eventually brought Shafi’I’s school to be the dominating school in Egypt, which is where most of the followers of the school are. After the fall of the Malikites in Egypt, the school was narrowly restricted to Maghribis and Spaniards, where their paths would not cross with Shafi’I’s or Iraqi’s. While silently flourishing in these areas, Malik’s school developed three separate schools within, one of which (Iraqi) was previously followed in Egypt, but later on, the three schools merged.
It’s important to recognize that the science of jurisprudence, especially the need for it, is a relatively new concept and is very important in religious law. The need wasn’t apparent until multiple generations after Muhammad when there was no longer a clear way to decide which transmitters of tradition were reliable, which was necessary to derive laws from evidence. The first scholar to write on this was Shafi’i. After Shafi’I, Hanafite jurists wrote works to verify rules and perfect the technique of jurisprudence. The differences in the opinions of the four schools led to the first debates. This led to the method of controversial questioning, a new aspect of