A Short Biography of Imam Shafi (769-820AD)

From being an accomplished horseback rider, poet, and scholar of medicine to when he was arrested for “treachery”, here is a fascinating look into the life of Imam Shafi.

From being an accomplished horseback rider, poet, and scholar of medicine to when he was arrested for “treachery”, here is a fascinating look into the life of Imam Shafi.

Imam Shafi was born in 150 Hijri (769 AD), the year when the great Imam Abu Hanifa passed away. Imam Shafi did not meet Imam Abu Hanifa but he met two other great Imamas within Sunni Islam – Imam Malik and Imam Hanbal – and it was not merely just knowing each other in passing.

Imam Shafi was in fact a direct student of Imam Malik for a long time. On the other hand, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was also a direct student of Imam Shafi. Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal commented that were it not for Imam Shafi, he himself would have remained uneducated in the field of Fiqhul Hadith. Now let us go through the amazing life of this great scholar called Imam Shafi.

The name of Imam Shafi was Mohammad ibn Idris ibn Abbas ibn Uthman ibn Shafi. He was a Quraishi and his ancestors are from the tribe of Abd Manaf. His great-great-great-grandfather (3rd grand-father) and his father (4th grand-father) were companions of the Prophet. His 4th grandfather Saib Ibnu Ubaid fought against the Muslims in the Battle of Badr and he was one of the captives.

During the captivity period, Islam entered into the heart of Saib but he did not declare the testimony immediately. When tribe members of Saib paid the ransom money and freed him from captivity, only then he declared that he had become Muslim. When he was asked about the reason for his action, he said that he wanted to benefit the Muslims with the ransom amount. 

According to the majority of the historians, the father of Imam Shafi migrated to Gaza, Palestine which was the birthplace of Imam Shafi. At an early age, his father passed away and his mother returned back to Makkah when Imam Shafi was very young. He grew up seeing scholars teaching around the Mashjeed Al Haram and he used to attend classes of various scholars from an early age.

When Imam Shafi was 7 years old he memorized the entire Quran and by the age of 10, he memorized the Muwatta of Imam Malik. Imam Shafi’s recitation of the Quran was so melodious and soothing that it often brought tears to the eyes of the listeners. 

Imam Shafi had a tremendous interest in literature and poems. For this reason, he left Makkah to live with a desert tribe named Huzail to learn authentic and pure Arabic language and literature. Imam Shafi, therefore, became a reference figure when it came to the Arabic language.

Apart from this, Imam Shafi mastered archery and also excelled in horse riding. In addition to all of this, Imam Shafi also had great expertise in the field of medicine. It is very rare to see the accumulation of so many different and great qualities to that level into one personality. 

His first teacher of religion was the then chief Islamic cleric of Makkah. Subsequently, he learnt Hadith from the famous Sufiyan ibnu Uhaina. At a very tender age, Imam Shafi started to teach within Mashjeedul Haram. At the age of 16, Imam Shafi went to Madina to learn the religion from one of the greatest scholars living at that time i.e. Imam Malik ibnu Anas.

For at least 10 years Imam Shafi learnt the religion from Imam Malik. Imam Malik once said that if success wishes to embrace someone on its own then it will be young Shafi. Imam Shafi also studied under Imam Mohammad ibnul Hasan As-Shaibani in Iraq, who was one of the eminent students of Imam Abu Hanifa. 

As a teacher, Imam Shafi was beloved to his students. His lecture circles in Makkah used to be most crowded. Imam Shafi travelled a lot, unlike the other three great Imams within Sunni Islam. He visited Baghdad on several occasions and stayed there for a couple of years altogether. The Imam also visited Yemen and Egypt and stayed there for a few years.

The participation of students was also highest when Imam Shafi started to teach at the grand Mashjeed of Baghdad. Some of the teachers of Imam Shafi even used to attend his lectures including Sufiyan ibnu Uhaina. A large number of great scholars of Sunni Islam who subsequently carried out the authentic teachings of this religion to the next generation have acquired knowledge at the feet of Imam Shafi. Imam Shafi’s most famous student was Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal. Apart from that Ahmed ibnu Hajjaj, who was one of the main teachers of Imam Bukhari, was also a direct student of Imam Shafi. 

Imam Shafi, due to his travelling, experienced the difference in various Islamic rulings between Madina and Baghdad. In his early days, Imam Shafi used to give verdicts based on the opinions of Imam Malik. He has also extensively studied under one of the major students of Imam Abu Hanifa for a long time. With the passing of time, Imam Shafi felt the importance of revisiting some of the teachings of these great Imams within Sunni Islam in order to ensure coherency between different rulings of Madina and Baghdad. However, Imam Shafi was most respectful towards the opinions of other great Imams.

I would like to share one incident which carries an important lesson for every Muslim to date. It was reported that one time, Imam Shafi visited the grave of Imam Abu Hanifa and prayed at the adjacent Mashjeed. Imam Shafi was of the view that one should raise hand every time saying Takbeer during Salah – which was of course not the view of Imam Abu Hanifa. However, while praying at that Mashjeed Imam Shafi did not raise his hands while saying every takbeer. When people asked him about the reason he replied that he did this out of respect to the owner of that grave.

This shows how the great Imams within Sunni Islam respected each other despite having a difference of opinions. Therefore, Muslims today who are adhering to a particular school of thought or any scholar should learn a valuable lesson from this incident and start respecting the opinion of other schools of thoughts.   

Imam Shafi wrote many books and according to some narrations, the number is around 123. One of his famous books is Ar Risala. This is not a book of his verdict’s specific issues, rather it was a book settling the principles of Islamic jurisprudence upon which every school of thoughts agree. He was one of the first people in the history of Islam who developed this branch of the religion. Another book comprising his rulings called Al-Umm has also become widely popular.

Like other great scholars, Imam Shafi also faced trials and tribulations. During the Abbasaid Caliphate talking about Ahlul-bait i.e. the progeny of the Prophet and their entitlement towards the Caliphate was considered as treachery and a threat to the Caliphate and the people who were found to get involved in these issues used to face severe consequences.

At the time of Caliph of Haroon Ur Rashid, there was an unjust ruler in Yemen who arrested Imam Shafi on such baseless allegation of treachery and sent him to Baghdad. At that time the Chief Judge was Mohammad ibnul Hasan As-Shaibani, who was a teacher of Imam Shafi, interceded on behalf of him and ultimately Imam Shafi was released.

During his stay in Egypt, Imam Shafi became ill and that illness caused him to suffer a lot. Despite the illness, he continued with his studies and teachings. According to some historians and scholars, this illness ultimately caused his death. There is another report which suggests that the Imam was badly beaten by some extreme followers of Imam Malik and the injuries caused by that beating ultimately lead to his demise. On 204 Hizri (820 AD) this giant scholar of Islam passed away at the age of 54 in Egypt. His funeral prayer was attended by thousands of people and lead by the Governor of Egypt.