Bridging the Gap: Imam Abu Hanifa and his love for the family of the Prophet Mohammed


Bridging the Gap: Imam Abu Hanifa and his love for the family of the Prophet Mohammed

While in prison, Abu Hanifa was brutally tortured and beaten mercilessly, being whipped unconscious in the Abbasid cells, for his love and support of the Ahlul Bayt. The great scholar and jurist, advocate, and supporter of social justice and reform, was beaten so badly that he eventually died in prison in year 150 A.H.


While in prison, Abu Hanifa was brutally tortured and beaten mercilessly, being whipped unconscious in the Abbasid cells, for his love and support of the Ahlul Bayt. The great scholar and jurist, advocate, and supporter of social justice and reform, was beaten so badly that he eventually died in prison in year 150 A.H.

The great Muslim theologian, jurist, legal theorist, and scholar, Imam Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man b. Thabit b. Zuta al-Kufi, commonly known, simply, as Abu Hanifa, was born in the year 90 A.H. in Kufa, Iraq, during the reign of the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan. Imam Abu Hanifa’s family hailed from Afghanistan, as his father, Thabit b. Zuta, was a trader from the city which is now modern-day Kabul, Afghanistan. Although his ancestry was of non-Arab and Persian descent, Imam Abu Hanifa became a master of the Arabic language and went on to be one of the foremost leaders of Islamic jurisprudence in all of Muslim history.

He is the founder of the Hanafi school of thought in fiqh [jurisprudence], and generated much notable scholarship in the realm of usul al-fiqh [legal theory]. In a time where the role of the human intellect in religious understanding was under much scrutiny and criticism, Imam Abu Hanifa institutionalized methodologies and legal theories that advocated and promoted higher levels of rational and intelligence, rather than sole dependence on solitary transmissions and the like. Like many who challenge the status quo of their time, Imam Abu Hanifa was subjected to injustice and became a victim of state-led oppression at a later point in his life. One of the foremost reasons for his later imprisonment and, ultimately, his death, was none other than due to his unwavering love and support for the Ahlul Bayt – the Family of the Prophet Muhammad.

Imam Abu Hanifa grew up in his hometown of Kufa, living most of his early life there and studying with scholars and teachers of the Islamic disciplines. Kufa was, particularly, a politically-hot city in those days, with a rich history of revolutionary spirits and political strife in a short span of less than a century. At that time, Kufa was also becoming one of the primary intellectual centers of the Muslim world. Furthermore, it was the primary center of Shiʿites and their various divisions. It was, unspurprisingly, a center of ʿAlid political activity, but also the major center of legal learning for the Iraqi Sunnis.

Pro-‘Alid sentiments remained firm and rooted not only in Abu Hanifa’s family, whose grandfather had allegedly met the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, but in Kufa as a whole. Only thirty years prior to Abu Hanifa’s birth, Imam al-Husayn b. ‘Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was martyred, along with his family members and companions by the Umayyad tyrant, Yazid b. Mu’awiyah, while al-Husayn was en route to Kufa, seeking to meet with hundreds of thousands of Kufans who had pledged their allegiance to him. Even prior to that, Kufa had been the great city that Imam al-Husayn’s own father, the Commander of the Faithful, Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, had relocated to during his caliphate and made to be the new capital of the Muslim world.

Since those days, Kufa had always carried the pro-‘Alid spirit, despite the treacherous behaviors and actions of many of its residents who had pledged to him and his two sons, but later defected in their varying ways. Even nearer to Imam Abu Hanifa’s time was the famous uprising of al-Mukhtar b. Abi ‘Ubayd al-Thaqafi, a pro-‘Alid loyalist who avenged the martyrdom of Karbala by killing Yazid’s leading henchmen, while simultaneously leading a revolution against the Umayyad governors of Iraq, seizing control of Kufa [1]. The city of Kufa had a long history of political strife in a short span of time, seeing rulers and governors of different camps take its leadership, but this was the atmosphere which later produced the likes of Imam Abu Hanifa.

Imam Abu Hanifa first memorized the Qur’an at a young age and followed his father’s guidance in trade and business. As a young man, he took up silk trades for a living and made good earnings for himself until he became moderately wealthy. It was during his early teenage years when Imam Abu Hanifa came into the study of Islamic jurisprudence and its sources, under the tutelage of Hammad b. Abi Sulaiman, the most notable jurist of Iraq at the time. Before his study of jurisprudence, he took up the study of theology and would engage in debating Khatrijites in kalam [2], but found a more pressing need and attraction towards jurisprudence.

He became a disciple of Hammad, and remained studying with him for eighteen years until his teacher passed away. Upon Hammad’s death, Imam Abu Hanifa became his successor and the new head of the Islamic Studies School in Kufa. He began traveling to different parts of the Islamic world more often, where he met and studied with other leading scholars of his time. Among those he met and narrated from was ‘Atiyya b. Sa’d al-‘Awfi, the great Tabi’i who was once captured, flogged, and had his head and beard forcefully shaven by the Umayyad tyrant, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf, after joining the failed revolt of al-Ash’ath. Al-Hajjaj ordered his representative, Muhammad b. Qasim al-Thaqafi, to capture ‘Atiyya and order him to curse ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. Upon ‘Atiyya’s adamant refusal to do so, al-Hajjaj had ordered that he be flogged and humiliated.

‘Ata b. Rabah was another famous Tabi’i scholar, a student of ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas, whom Abu Hanifah studied with, thus furthering his ‘Alid connection. Perhaps the greatest teacher and scholar of the time that he was blessed to study with was none other than the great Imam of Ahlul Bayt, Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq. Athough Imam al-Sadiq was only a few years older than Abu Hanifa, and thus his contemporary, al-Sadiq was a product of the school of Ahlul Bayt, having learned and studied under the tutelage of his father, Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Baqir, and his uncle, Zaid b. ‘Ali al-Shahid [3].

It is recorded that Imam Abu Hanifa had once allegedly stated, “If it weren’t for the two years [sanatan], Nu’man would have perished” [4]. The statement is attributed to have been about the two years Abu Hanifa spent under the tutelage of Imam Ja’far b. Muhammad. He likewise studied with Ja’far al-Sadiq’s father, Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, as well as his uncle, Imam Zaid b. ‘Ali [5]. The latter, Imam Zaid, famously led a revolution against the Umayyad tyrant, Hisham b. ‘Abd al-Malik, in the year 122 A.H. This uprising against Umayyad oppression was one that followed in the footsteps of Zaid’s grandfather, Imam al-Husayn, and one that Imam Abu Hanifa found much value and admiration in. Abu Hanifa knew the injustices and transgressions upon which the Umayyad state ruled, and he particularly knew, especially after studying with them, the rank of Ahlul Bayt and the oppression they faced at the hands of the Umayyads.

When Imam Zaid led the uprising against Hisham b. ‘Abd al-Malik in the city of Kufa, Imam Abu Hanifa sent him monetary and material support, sending him money, weapons, and horses; and he would call on others to join the revolution. This was also because Imam Abu Hanifa had personally met and studied with Imam Zaid, learning and taking knowledge from the Ahlul Bayt, and thus knowing their rank and spiritual stations. He once stated about Imam Zaid: “I met with Zaid and I never saw in his generation a person more knowledgeable, as quick a thinker, or more eloquent than he was”. The revolt of Imam Zaid, however, was unsuccessful and the tens of thousands of people in Kufa who had pledged allegiance to him were bribed and bought out by the Iraqi governor Yusuf b. ‘Umar al-Thaqafi. This weakened Zaid’s support greatly, and led to his ultimate martyrdom.

After the fall of the Umayyad Empire and turn of the century, the new Muslim state was headed by the Abbasids, who were no better than the Umayyads in their oppression, and just as brutal towards the Prophetic Household. Recognizing his stature in scholarship and mastery in jurisprudence, the Abbasids approached Imam Abu Hanifa and offered him the position of Chief Judge of the State [Qadhi al-Qudat]. Abu Hanifa, recognizing the illegitimacy and tyranny of the Abbasids, as well as due to his own closeness to the Ahlul Bayt, refused the lucrative position, which was second only to the Caliph himself, and did not accept it under the pretext of not viewing himself qualified enough for it.

In reality, he simply did not want to be the axis by which the wheel of Abbasid tyranny turned upon and be used for religious justification of state crimes. This angered the Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, raising his suspicion of Abu Hanifa, whereby the state then kept a close eye on his dealings, particularly with members of the Ahlul Bayt.  Shortly thereafter, Muhammad b. ‘Abdullah b. al-Hasan al-Muthanna b. al-Hasan b. ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, another ‘Alid leader and contemporary of Abu Hanifa, led a revolution against al-Mansur in Medina. Muhammad, also known as “al-Nafs al-Zakiyya” (the Pure Soul), coordinated with his brother, Ibrahim b. ‘Abdullah, to launch his uprising in Basra at the same time as his own in Medina. Imam Abu Hanifa supported both of these uprisings and sent monetary aid to both of the ‘Alid brothers, calling others to join them [6].

Both of these attempted revolts, however, were unsuccessful as the number of supporters for each were never nearly enough to compete with the overwhelming Abbasid army. Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya and his brother, Ibrahim b. ‘Abdullah, were both martyred during their battles with the Abbasids. Abu Hanifa is said to have sent over four thousand pieces of gold to Ibrahim b. ‘Abdullah, and his enemies would also decry him for having urged young men to join Ibrahim, an act which often led to their deaths. 

The great Hanafi scholar and jurist, Abu Bakr b. ‘Ali al-Jassas, stated in Ahkam al-Qur’an: “Abu Hanifa’s madhhab was well-known regarding fighting oppressors and tyrannical rulers. This is why al-Awza’i (an Umayyad scholar; d. 85 A.H.) stated: ‘We used to tolerate everything from Abu Hanifa until he came with the sword – meaning his opinion regarding fighting oppressors – this we didn’t tolerate.’ His assistance to Zaid b. ‘Ali is well known. He used to provide him with money and secretly gave fatwas to people regarding the obligation to fight with him and make him victorious. His involvement with [the revolutionary] affair of Muhammad and Ibrahim b. ‘Abdullah b. al-Hasan is also well known. He was asked by Abu Ishaq al-Fazari, ‘Why did you refer my brother to join the revolution of Ibrahim until he got killed?’ Abu Hanifa replied, ‘Your brother’s revolution was more beloved to me than yours…'” [7].

After Abu Hanifa declined the position of the Chief Judge, and the ‘Abbasids came to find that Abu Hanifa had been supporting and sending financial aid to the uprisings against their rule, Abu Hanifa was arrested and subsequently imprisoned. While in prison, he was brutally tortured and beaten mercilessly, being whipped unconscious in the Abbasid cells, for his love and support of the Ahlul Bayt. The great scholar and jurist, advocate, and supporter of social justice and reform, was beaten so badly that he eventually died in prison in year 150 A.H [8]. 

The legacy of Imam Abu Hanifa is one of dedication and loyalty. His dedication to studying, learning, and mastering fields within the Islamic sciences, and teaching them to his students is something that the Ummah has benefited from ever since. Furthermore, Abu Hanifa’s most prominent student, Muhammad b. Hasan al-Shaybani, would later defend fiqh school founder, Imam Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi’i, in an Abbasid court, where al-Shafi’i was being tried (and was to be executed) for his support of another ‘Alid revolution in Yemen [9].

Similarly, Abu Hanifa’s loyalty towards his own teachers, particularly those of the Prophetic Household, was impeccable, such that it lead him to his martyrdom for the sake of their cause. After studying and learning from Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, learning from and supporting the uprising of Imam Zaid b. ‘Ali, supporting the revolutions of Imam Muhammad Nafs al-Zakiyya and Imam Ibrahim b. ‘Abdullah, Imam Abu Hanifa was not only politically pro-‘Alid, but knowledge-wise, he had been greatly influenced and taught by these illustrious mujtahidin [distinguished jurists] and a’imma [leaders] of the ‘Itra (Ahlul Bayt). This is further exemplified in the fact that the Hanafi School of jurisprudence came to be the closest school of jurisprudence to the Zaidi School of fiqh (the school of Imam Zaid b. ‘Ali and subsequent Imams of the Prophetic Household).

There are many similarities and overlapping rulings between the two prominent Muslim schools of thought, as one was a product of the other, in one way or another, although they have their differences. Because despite Abu Ḥanifa’s pro-‘Alid political stance in the heavily Shiʿite atmosphere of Kufa, he did not feel himself bound to follow the legal opinions of the Ahlul Bayt, nor did he regard them to be sole sources of religious knowledge; rather, he looked upon their opinions as ijtihad [a distinguished jurist’s legal opinion]. But due to his close connection and tutelage under so many of their illustrious members, Abu Hanifa’s attitudes toward the Prophet’s family, the Companions, and political legitimacy were probably closest to those of the Zaydis [10]. His loyalty to truth and justice was so deeply rooted within him and was so unequivocal that it is reported when Abu Hanifa died, he left a testament that he not be buried in that part of the cemetery of Baghdad, which al-Manṣur had wrongfully usurped from the people [11]. May Allah be pleased with him and allow us to emulate the pious forbearers (Salaf al-Salih) of this Ummah.

[1] Tarikh al-Tabari

[2] Manaqib al-Imam al-A’tham Abi Hanifa, Mowaffaq b. Ahmad

[3] Abu Hanifa, Abu Zahra

[4] Hashiyat Radd al-Muhtar, Ibn ‘Abidin 

[5] Abu Hanifa, Abu Zahra

[6] Abu Hanifa, Abu Zahra

[7] Ahkam al-Quran, Abu Bakr al-Jassas

[8] Tarikh al-Baghdad

[9] Al-Shafi’i, Abu Zahra

[10] Abu Hanifa, Abu Zahra

[11] Manaqib al-Imam al-A’tham, Mohammad al-Bazzaz

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