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Imam Abu Hanifa: Life and Works

Imam Abu Hanifa: Life and Works

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Allama Shibli Nomani

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Darul Ishaat

An analytical study of the life and works of Imam Abu Hanifah. Probably one of the most comprehensive biographies in the English language by the celebrated author 'Allamah Shibli Nomani

An excerpt:
I must admit that the facts I have accepted about the Imam's personality and way of life are also derived from these very biographical memoirs; but then every incident or fact mentioned in a book has to be considered on its own merits. In regard to ordinary incidents the ordinary kind of evidence is sufficient; but so far as extraordinary things of the kind that I am speaking of are concerned, they need some authority absolutely beyond doubt; in fact, they need to conform to something more than the conditions to be fulfilled by a Hadith before it can be accepted as sahih (authentic), marfu' (connected with a saying or an act of the Prophet) and muttasil (uninterruptedly continuous) -- and must also stand examination in accordance with the principles of scrutiny (dirayat). When one thinks of the Imam's sagacity and keen intellect, of which we have first-hand proof, one cannot believe his doing things which even a rabid anchorite would not do.

An accurate, though sketchy, portrait of the Imam's personality is to be found in the description that Qadi Abu Yusuf gave of him to Harun al-Rashid at the latter's request. "As far as I know," said the Qadi, "Abu Hanifah was extremely pious, avoided forbidden things, remained silent and absorbed in his thoughts most of the time, and answered a question only if he knew the answer. He was very generous and self-respecting, never asked a favour of anybody, shunned the company of the worldly-minded and held worldly power and position in contempt. He avoided slander and only talked well of people. He was a man of profound learning and was as generous with his knowledge as with his money." On hearing this account, Harun al-Rashid observed, "You have described a great and good man." To superficial observers, the qualities described by Qadi Abu Yusuf may not appear to be of much significance, but connoisseurs of the spiritual character know that, easy as this way of life may look, it is very difficult to follow and as praiseworthy as it is difficult.

Along with beauty of character God had endowed the Imam with good looks. He had a medium height, handsome features and a well-proportioned figure. His way of speaking was pleasing and his voice loud and clear. When he spoke on a problem he did so with such eloquence and clarity that, no matter how complicated it was, it became simplified.

He was a man of good taste and liked to dress well. Sometimes he even put on ermine jubbahs Abu Muti' Balkhi, one of his pupils, mentions that on one occasion he found him dressed in a shirt and mantle which could not have cost less than four hundred dirhams. One day he borrowed the mantle of Nasr b. Muhammad, who called on him when he was getting ready to go out. On coming back, he complained that he had felt ashamed of the mantle because it was dirty. Nasr had bought it for five dinars and was proud of it. He was, therefore, surprised at the Imam's complaint, but he understood the reason for it when, a few days later, he found the Imam wearing a mantle which could not have cost less than thirty dinars.

The Caliph Mansur had invented a special straw cap covered with black cloth for his courtiers to wear. The cap was so very tall that it provoked the poet Abu Dalamah into saying humorously, "We were expecting some enhancement from the Caliph. So he has enhanced the length of caps."

Although the Imam kept away from the Caliph's court as much as he could, yet he did not mind occasionally wearing the new courtiers' cap. In fact, it raised eyebrows in learned circles that he sometimes had seven or eight of the caps in his wardrobe, although for the beau monde this was nothing to marvel at.

In some other matters too, the Imam's style of living was quite different from that of the common run of 'ulama'. Most of the contemporary 'ulama' were stipendiaries of the Caliph or of rich courtiers, and did not consider this as a thing to be apologetic about. Somebody having taunted Qadi Ibn 'Abd al-Barr with being a stipendiary of wealthy people, he replied by citing the example of a number of Companions, Tabi'in and Tab' Tabi'in who had lived on the generosity of the rich. However, I do not consider this as perhaps some modern-minded people do, to be tantamount to idleness or parasitism. Teaching was not yet a salaried profession. The 'ulama' used to teach honorarily either at their own homes or in mosques -- a system which has not yet been surpassed in extensiveness and usefulness. What these honorary teachers received from their rich patrons by way of regular stipends or occasional gifts could well be regarded as a salary. All the same, it cannot be denied that it was this practice which in course of time grew into the system of professional and hereditary religious preceptors (Pirs), parasites living by exploiting people's credulity, which has rendered a large part of the Muslim population idle. 

There is no doubt that Abu Hanifah was strongly opposed to the practice, and he was right in the light of its subsequent development. One great advantage that accrued to him from his being attached to nobody was that he could express his true opinions without fear or favour. However independent-minded and frank a man may be, he cannot help being influenced by those from whom he accepts favours. Abu Hanifah never accepted a favour from anybody throughout his life, and so he retained his independence. He sometimes used to mention this fact too.

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