A short biography of Imam Al Shafi’i

Muhammad Ziyaad R


Imaam Shafi’i’s full name is Muhammad bin Idris bin Abbaas bin Uthman bin Shafi’i. His lineage goes back to the tribe of Banu Hashim ibn Muttalib from the tribe of Quraish in Mecca which is from the descendent of Ismael, son of Ibrahim (peace be with them) [Manaqib, p3]. In that way, he is the cousin of the prophet, peace be upon him. He was born in the Ghazza or Asqalan (which is not far away from Ghazza) in the year 150 H, the same year that imam Abu Hanifa died. After his father’s death, his mother left Ghazza to settle in Mecca when he was less than 2 years old. He was brought up in Mecca in poor circumstances and he studied under the scholars there. It is said that he memorized the Quran at the age of seven, the muwatta at the age of ten and he was declared fit to give fatawa at the age of fifteen. He also spent time with the Bedouins studying poetry and deepening his knowledge of Arabic language and grammar. His main teachers were Muslim Al Zanji, Mufti of Mecca and Sufyaan bin Uyayna [Risala, p 9-11].

Although he was already qualified to practice law, Muhammad bin Idris desired to further his knowledge under the leading scholar of hijaaz at that time, Imaam Maalik bin Anas. Therefore, around the age of twenty, he left Mecca for Medina. He obtained a letter from the governor of Mecca and went to the governor of Madina to request an audience with Maalik. The imam held a high position in Madina and was very difficult to reach but imam Al Shafi’i eventually made it and Maalik was impressed by his intelligence. He remained a student and follower of imam Maalik for nine years, until Maalik’s death. The governor of Yemen who was visiting Hijaz was impressed by Imam Shafi’i and requested his service there. Therefore, at the age of thirty, imam Al Shafi’i became an administrator at the service of the state. However, due to local interests and factional jealousies he was deported in chains to Baghdad, accused of being a secret follower of Zaidi imam Yahya bin Abdullah, an opponent of Calph Harun Al Rasheed. He was able to defend his position eloquently and was able to convince his loyalty to the caliph and he was pardoned. This is the place that Allah destined for him to meet another well known personality: Muhammad bin Al Hasan Al Shaybaani, a hanafi jurist who was one of the main students of Abu Haneefa. Even though imam Al Shafi’i was studying hanafi fiqh with Muhammad Al Shaybani, he still defended Maalik’s school of thought through discourses and arguments with the Hanafi jurists. These discussion made him aware of the weaknesses of both schools. He also debated with Muhammad Al Shaybani. Then, he returned to Mecca, where he was well received and began lecturing at the Haram. Imaam Ahmad bin Hanbal was seeking Knowledge in Mecca at that time and became a student of Imaam Al Shafei. Many Maaliki admirers were disappointed by the differences in Al Shafi’i’s teachings since his teaching was a combination of all the knowledge he gathered and not just Maaliki [Risala, p12-13].

In the year 194 H, Al Shafi’i returned to Baghdad. During that time, he gathered Islamic material and 198 H, when al-Mamun became caliph, Al Shafi’i decided to settle in Egypt. It is told that the new caliph offered Al Shafi’i the position of a judge but he refused it. The caliph was known for promoting the rational philosophy of the Mu’tazila. It has been suggested that in anticipation for an atmosphere of intolerance to the orthodox views, Al Shafi’i chose to settle in Egypt at the age of fifty [Risala, p14]. His stance regarding the qur’an is that it is the word of Allah, and it is not created. He said that a person commits kufr by saying the qur’an is created [manaqib, p116]. It is also reported from Al Rabi, one of his famous students, that Imaam Al Shafi’isaid “Eman is saying and action, and it increases and decreases” [manaqib, p130]

In Egypt, he was on good terms with the governor and during the five years he lived there, he devoted his time to teaching and dictating his works to his students until his death. It was in Egypt that he wrote the book ‘Al Umm” [Risala, p15] while ‘Risala’ and ‘Hujjah’ were written in Iraq [Risala, p19]. We have many quotations from him regarding how to follow the religion. In one quote, he said that the sunnahs of the messenger, peace be upon him reach and escape everyone i.e no one has come across every single hadeeth. So if he said anything opposite of a sunnah, then the correct view is what the messenger, peace be upon him said. In another quotation from him, he said that when a hadeeth is found to be authentic, then this is his madhab [The prophet’s prayer, intro.]. It shows he acknowledged that even scholars can make mistakes but when we find authentic information we should follow that. This means that what he taught was actually to follow the madhab of rasoolullah peace be upon him when we find it.


Al Albaani, Sheikh Muhammad Naasir ud deen, The prophet’s prayer, trans (Eng.), Usama Suhaib Hasan

Fakr Ud deen, Imaam Al Raazi, Manaqibul Imaami Ash Shaafe’i (Arabic)

Al Shafi’i, Risala Fi Usul Al Fiqh, trans (Eng.), Majid Khadduri, 2nd Ed.