The Imam who could debate anyone

Abū Ḥanīfa’s journey began with his initial interest in the science of kalām,[1] and he would often debate deviant views and advocate the case for orthodox Islām. Indeed, he visited Basra in Iraq no less than 27 times for this purpose. His interlocutors included the Mu’tazila, the Khawārij, and others. Abū Ḥanīfa’s relentless efforts in defending orthodox Islām resulted in him becoming a nationally recognised figure, despite being only 20 years old at the time.
However, the pivotal point in the life of Abū Ḥanīfa that inspired him to turn from the field of kalām to that of fiqh was during a study circle he was leading in the Masjid. A woman asked him a basic fiqh question pertaining to divorce that he was unable to answer.

Abū Ḥanīfa referred the questioner to another nearby study circle within the Masjid which was led by Ḥammād b. Abī Sulaymān and asked the woman to inform him of the answer when she learnt it from Ḥammād. When she gave Abū Ḥanīfa the response, he said: “I have lost the interest for kalām.” He immediately picked up his shoes and made his way to the circle of Ḥammād to study fiqh.

Abū Ḥanīfa remained in that study circle learning from Ḥammād for a staggering 18 years. He would ardently serve Ḥammād for nearly two decades, not leaving his side until his teacher passed away. Abū Ḥanīfa’s mentor realised that before him was a marvel of a human being, memorising his teachings word for word whilst others would forget, and so Ḥammād said:

لا يجلس في صدر الحلقة بحذائي غير أبي حنيفة

“No one is to sit at the forefront of the study circle next to me but Abū Ḥanīfa.”[2]

There was an interesting event that took place ten years into Abū Ḥanīfa’s study with Ḥammād. Abū Ḥanīfa said:

“I accompanied Ḥammād for ten years, then my soul began to yearn for a position of authority. I considered breaking away and starting my own study circle. On one evening, I made my way to the Masjid with the intention of doing just that, but when I saw Ḥammād, I could not bring myself to do so. During that evening’s class, news was conveyed to Ḥammād that a relative of his in Basra had passed away. This relative had left behind him some wealth and Ḥammād was the only inheritor. So, he instructed me to sit in his place to teach.

Ḥammād left, and so the students asked me questions that I had not heard Ḥammād answer before. I would answer the questions and write down my answers. After two months, Ḥammād returned. I showed him the questions I was asked and how I answered them. There were around sixty questions. He approved of forty of my answers and disagreed with twenty of them. I vowed to myself that I will not leave his side until he passes away.”[3]

This event therefore marked the official deputisation of Abū Ḥanīfa, who taught in Ḥammād’s place when he was absent and subsequently succeeded him in Kufa after Ḥammād had passed away. Indeed, matters may have been different had Abū Ḥanīfa acted upon his wishes of breaking away from his teacher’s study circle that evening.

At times, one may eagerly aspire for a matter but knows deep down that going for it at that moment would not be the right thing to do. So he waits and exercises that much more patience, and then lo and behold, the matter which he was heading towards now heads towards him! The time is now right and the outcome is now best.

Ḥammād was not only the teacher of Abū Ḥanīfa, but of 4,000 other students as well, 93 of whom were from the tābi’ūn. It is important to note that Ḥammād was a scholar who was taught by Ibrāhīm al-Nakha’ī (the main jurist of Iraq at his time), who was taught by ‘Alqama, who was taught by ‘Abdullāh b. Mas’ūd, the Companion of the Prophet ﷺ. Hence, the fiqh of Abū Ḥanīfa has its roots in the earliest of traditions, and he is a man whose trustworthiness and knowledge cannot be doubted.

The personality and manners of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa

‘Abdullāh b. Al-Mubārak once said to Sufyān al-Thawri: [4]

ما أبعد أبا حنيفة عن الغيبة، ما سمعتُه يغتاب عدوًّا له

“How distant is Abū Ḥanīfa from making slanderous statements. I have never even heard him backbite his enemies.”

Sufyān responded:

والله هو أعقل من أن يُسلِّط على حسناته ما يذهب بها

“By Allah, he is wiser than to allow someone to walk away with his good deeds.”[5]

Abū Ḥanīfa took a vow that every time he would take an oath using Allah’s name, he would follow this by donating a dinar of gold in charity. He did this out of veneration of Allah’s name and to train himself not to abuse the taking of oaths using Allah’s name. How different is this to those who use Allah’s name for the pettiest of oaths and for the lightest of matters, whilst Allah has said:

وَاحْفَظُوا أَيْمَانَكُمْ

“…and guard your oaths…”[6]

Abū Ḥanīfa was uniquely generous, pledging that for each dinar he would spend on his family, an equivalent amount would be donated in charity.

Abū Ḥanīfa’s worship

Exemplary worship is a key quality that consistently reappears in the biographies of the luminaries of the past; their levels of worship were awe-inspiring. Such giants of Islām recognised that application is the core purpose of knowledge, and if such knowledge does not activate a tangible change in one’s behaviour, manners, and worship, then one will have fallen victim to the four elements from which the Prophet ﷺ sought protection against when he said:

اللهم إني أعوذ بك من علم لا ينفع ومن قلب لا يخشع ومن نفس لا تشبع ومن دعوة لا يستجاب لها‏

“O Allah, I seek refuge in You from knowledge that is not beneficial, from a heart that does not humble itself to You, from desire that is not satisfied, and from a prayer that is not answered.”[7]

Ask yourself: it may be true that my ‘knowledge’ is increasing, but is it causing me to grow? How true were the words of ‘Abd al-A’lā al-Tamīmi who said:

من أوتي من العلم ما لا يبكيه فخليق أن لا يكون أوتي علماً ينفعه؛ لأن الله –عز وجل- نعت العلماء، وقرأ: إِنَّ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْعِلْمَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِ إِذَا يُتْلَى عَلَيْهِمْ يَخِرُّونَ لِلْأَذْقَانِ سُجَّدًا * وَيَقُولُونَ سُبْحَانَ رَبِّنَا إِنْ كَانَ وَعْدُ رَبِّنَا لَمَفْعُولًا * وَيَخِرُّونَ لِلْأَذْقَانِ يَبْكُونَ وَيَزِيدُهُمْ خُشُوعًا

“Whoever gains knowledge that does not cause him to cry has not gained beneficial knowledge. This is because Allah said in describing the scholars, “Those who were given knowledge before it – when it is recited to them, they fall upon their faces in prostration, and they say, ‘Glory be to our Lord! Truly, the Promise of our Lord must be fulfilled.’ And they fall upon their faces weeping, and the Qur’an increases them in humble submission.”[8]

Abū Qilāba said to his student Ayyūb al-Sikhtiāni:

 إذا أحدث الله لك علماً فأحدث له عبادة ولا يكن همك أن تحدث به

“If Allah gives you a new portion of knowledge, then give it a new portion of worship, and do not make your main intention the teaching of this knowledge.”[9]

Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna said:

إِذَا كَانَ نَهَارِي نَهَارَ سَفِيهٍ ، وَلَيْلِي لَيْلَ جَاهِلٍ ، فَمَا أَصْنَعُ بِالْعِلْمِ الَّذِي كَتَبْتُ ؟

“If I am spending my hours during the day foolishly and my nights ignorantly, then what is the point of the knowledge that I am writing?”[10]

Exemplary worship was the hallmark of our predecessors and was for them the sign of true knowledge. Abū Ḥanīfa was no exception. He performed Ḥajj no less than an astonishing 55 times. He would also pray the Fajr (dawn) prayer without needing to renew the wuḍū’ (ablution) that he had made for the ‘Ishā’ (night) prayer – this practice lasted for approximately 30 years. In other words, he did not sleep during the night.

Mis’ar b. Kidām said:

“I saw the Imām performing the Fajr (dawn) prayer, then he would sit to teach all the way until Ẓuhr (noon), then would remain in his place (teaching) until Maghrib (sunset), then again until near ‘Ishā’ (night). So, I asked myself: ‘When does he find time for worship?’ When the crowds lessened, he made his way to the Masjid and stood in prayer until the time for Fajr. He then went into his house, changed his clothes, then came back out for the Fajr prayer. I monitored this behaviour of his, and I only ever recall seeing him fasting during the day or praying at night.”

The mother of his child said that his sleep was only between Ẓuhr (noon) and ‘Asr (afternoon) in the summer, whilst in the winter he would sleep lightly in the first part of the night when he was in the Masjid.[11]

This may amaze many – and is certainly deserving of amazement – but this is the nature of the soul: it will become accustomed to whatever it is provided with. If the soul is offered excessive sleep, it will learn to demand such. However, if it is disciplined with patience, du’ā, and consistency, it will surrender to the wishes of its master like a wild beast which ultimately succumbs to a strong owner, even if it takes a while to achieve this.

There is no doubt that when Allah sees sincerity in a heart and a genuine desire to live a life of lofty goals and high aspirations, He will facilitate these ambitions through ways one could not have ever imagined.

Abū Ḥanīfa once recited the Qur’an from cover to cover in a single unit of prayer. He would complete the recitation of the entire Qur’an every three days. In fact, he once spent the entire night in prayer repeating one verse from the Qur’an as he wept – this verse is where Allah said:

بَلِ السَّاعَةُ مَوْعِدُهُمْ وَالسَّاعَةُ أَدْهَى وَأَمَرُّ

“But the Hour is their appointment, and the Hour is most disastrous and most bitter.”[12]

His knowledge and intelligence

Imām Mālik was asked: “Have you seen Abū Ḥanīfa?” To which he replied:

نَعَمْ، رَأَيْتُ رَجُلًا لَوْ كَلَّمَكَ فِي هَذِهِ السَّارِيَةِ أَنْ يَجْعَلَهَا ذَهَبًا لَقَامَ بِحُجَّتِهِ

“Yes, I saw a man who, if he wanted to convince you that this pillar was made out of gold, would be able to argue a case for it.”[13]

Imām al-Shāfi’ī once said:

ما طلب أحد الفقه إلا كان عيالاً على أبي حنيفة، وما قامت النساء على رجلٍ أعقل من أبي حنيفة

“Every student of fiqh is dependent upon Abū Ḥanīfa. No woman has ever given birth to a man who was wiser than Abū Ḥanīfa.”[14]

Abū Ḥanīfa once saw himself in a dream exhuming the grave of the Prophet ﷺ. This dream was then relayed to Muḥammad b. Sīrīn for its interpretation. Ibn Sīrīn expressed immense interest in it and enquired about who saw it. Ibn Sīrīn then explained:

صاحب هذه الرؤيا يثور علمًا لم يسبقه إليه أحد قبله

“The viewer of this dream has knowledge that overspills in unprecedented ways.”[15]

His manners

Imām Abū Ḥanīfa had a neighbour in Kufa who would drink most of the night and, once drunk, would sing at the top of his voice, repeating the same couplets over and over again:

أضاعوني وأي فتى أضاعوا ليوم كريهة وسداد ثغر

“They have neglected me, but what a man they have neglected. They shall realise their loss during times of war.”[16]

This drunk man would sing himself to sleep. As Abū Ḥanīfa would spend the entire night in prayer, he had the unfortunate privilege of hearing his neighbour’s din from beginning to end – each and every evening. On one evening, Abū Ḥanīfa did not hear his neighbour’s clamour. Out of concern at not enduring the nightly wailing and what this may mean, Abū Ḥanīfa enquired about him and discovered that he had been arrested and imprisoned by the city police for drunkenness.

The next morning, Abū Ḥanīfa carried out his Fajr prayer, mounted his ride, and made his way to the governor’s residence. The governor was pleased to see him and treated him as an honoured guest. During the meeting, Abū Ḥanīfa requested the release of his drunkard neighbour. Not only did the governor accede to this request, but he also decided to free all those who had been imprisoned that same evening in an act of clemency.

When his neighbour arrived home, Abū Ḥanīfa asked him:

يا فتى، أضعناك؟

“Young man, have I neglected you?”

The neighbour responded:

لا، بل حفظت ورعيت، جزاك الله خيرًا عن حرمة الجوار ورعاية الحق

“No, you preserved and safeguarded me, so may Allah reward you for being such a good neighbour and a guardian of rights.”

This marked the moment of repentance for this young man, who never returned to his old habits again.[17]

How beautiful are the words of al-Hasan al-Baṣrī who said:

ليس حسن الجوار كف الأذى ، حسن الجوار الصبر على الأذى

“Being neighbourly is not merely about refraining from harming your neighbour, rather it is about being patient in the face of harm.”[18]

Imām Abū Ḥanīfa was also a man of immense warā’ (caution) with respect to his religious affairs, not taking any risks with matters of the hereafter. He once asked his business partner to sell an item of clothing worth 30,000 dirhams. It had a defect, which Abū Ḥanīfa gave clear instructions was to be declared and shown to the buyer beforehand. The item was sold, and the money was given to Abū Ḥanīfa, but his partner had forgotten to show the defect to the buyer. At once, Imām Abū Ḥanīfa donated the entire 30,000 dirhams.[19]

The Prophet ﷺ said:

كن ورعًا تكن أعبدَ الناسِ

“Be cautious in your approach to matters and you will be, in Allah’s Eyes, the most devoted of all people.”[20]

A sign that Allah wants good for a Muslim is that He inspires such an individual to show great caution with respect to matters of religion: restraint with respect to casual glances, careful choice of words, consideration of dress in public, and cautiousness with regards to finances.

‘Ā’ishah, the wife of the Prophet ﷺ said:

“Abū Bakr had a servant who would bring Abū Bakr from his earnings that which he would eat from. On one of those days as Abū Bakr ate, the man said: ‘Do you know where I got this from?’ Abū Bakr asked: ‘From where?’ He responded:

كُنْتُ تَكَهَّنْتُ لِإِنْسَانٍ فِي الجَاهِلِيَّةِ، وَمَا أُحْسِنُ الكِهَانَةَ، إِلَّا أَنِّي خَدَعْتُهُ، فَلَقِيَنِي فَأَعْطَانِي بِذَلِكَ، فَهَذَا الَّذِي أَكَلْتَ مِنْهُ

“Once, in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance I foretold somebody’s future. Although I have no knowledge of foretelling, I cheated him, and when he met me, he gave me something for that service, and that is what you have eaten from.”

Immediately, Abū Bakr wedged his finger into the back of his throat and vomited all that he had eaten.[21] In other narrations, Abū Bakr’s attempts to induce vomit failed at first, so he continued to drink water and vomit until nothing remained. Then Abū Bakr said:

 اللهم إني أعتذر إليك مما حملت العروق وخالطه الأمعاء

“O Allah, I apologise to you from the remnants of that food which has reached my intestines and passed into my veins.”[22]

It was then said to him: “May Allah have mercy upon you! You did all of that to yourself for one mouthful?” Abū Bakr responded:

لَوْ لَمْ تَخْرُجْ إِلا مَعَ نَفْسِي لأَخْرَجْتُهَا ، سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ، يَقُولُ : ” كُلُّ جَسَدٍ نَبَتَ مِنْ سُحْتٍ فَالنَّارُ أَوْلَى بِهِ ”

“If that food was only going to exit with my soul, I would have still made sure that it left my body. I heard the Prophet ﷺ say: “Anyone whose body grows through impermissible earnings; the fire is worthier of it.”[23]

Do not wait to be taken by surprise on the Day of Reckoning. Rather, make sure to diligently bring yourself to account whilst you are still able to. Do not let yourself fall asleep this evening before you have audited each word you have spoken, every image you have posted online, and every penny that has been deposited into your bank account. Make warā’ part and parcel of every decision you make, and hope that in doing so you become, in Allah’s Eyes, the most devout of all people.

His school of thought

It is important to note that the fiqh of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa was formulated as a collective effort, as opposed to being the mere opinions of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa alone. The Imām would lead a council that included the likes of Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan, Al-Qāḍi Abū Yūsuf, Ḥafs b. Ghiyāth, and other scholars of fiqh, language, ḥadīth, and of the judiciary. It was the main study circle of the city of Kufa.

mas’ala (matter of discussion) would be posed, then every participant would speak and there would be a back and forth which would, at times, last an entire month, during which Imām Abū Ḥanīfa did not impose his opinion. After a thorough dissection and discussion of the issue, and after each participant was given the space to air his opinion, only then would Imām Abū Ḥanīfa give his view. Once consensus had been reached and an opinion was settled on, only then would this opinion be documented as part of the fiqh of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa. So, this circle was in essence the formation of the first Majma’ Fiqhi (fiqh council) in the Ummah – Imām Abū Ḥanīfa was therefore a trailblazer.

This is why when Wakī’ heard a person saying: “Imām Abū Ḥanīfa made a mistake,” he responded: “How can he make a mistake when with him are the likes of Abū Yūsuf and Zufar who are known for their Qiyās;[24] Yaḥya b. Abī Zā’ida, Ḥafs b. Ghiyāth, Ḥibbān, and Mandal, all of whom are known for their memorization of hadīth; Al-Qāsim b. Ma’n who is known for his knowledge of the Arabic language; and Dāwūd al- Ṭā’i and Al-Fuḍayl b. ‘Iyāḍ who are known for their Zuhd and caution? Whoever has such people as his companions will rarely make mistakes, because if he does, they will correct him.”

Whilst Abū Ḥanīfa was pioneering with his fiqh council, he would not hide behind the group if an issue could not be solved. Rather, he took responsibility for this himself.

If a matter remained unclear to Abū Ḥanīfa, struggling to reach a conclusive opinion, he would say to his companions:

 ما هذا إلا لذنب أذنبته

“This is due to my sins.”

He would repent to Allah, and at times would stand in prayer until the matter became clear. He would then say:

رجوتُ أنه تيب عليَّ

“My hope is that I have been forgiven.”[25]

Imām Abū Ḥanīfa was blessed with impressively loyal and scholarly students. These pupils included Abū Yūsuf (who would act as a chief judge during the reign of the Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd), Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Shaybāni (a scholar, judge, and prolific writer of the treatise Introduction to the Law of Nations), Zufar, and of course, ‘Abdullāh b. Mubārak.

It is true that the other three notable Imāms (Mālik, al-Shāfi’ī, and Aḥmad) were also blessed with dutiful students. However, none can be compared to the students of Imām Abū Ḥanīfa particularly with respect to the service they offered the works of their Imām and the role they played in promoting it. The books that can be directly attributed to Abū Ḥanīfa’s authorship are few; it was his students who carried the load of propagating his school of thought throughout the world.

Imām Abū Ḥanīfa’s school of thought is today the most widely adopted school worldwide. This has arguably been the case for the past 13 centuries. Imām Abū Ḥanīfa’s systemisation of Islamic legal doctrine had acquired such prestige that it became the school of thought for the Abbāsid dynasty, which ruled over the Islamic empire for nearly half a millennium. It was also the chosen madhhab for the Ottoman dynasty, which played a significant role in its spread throughout Iraq, al-Shām,[26] Egypt, the Indian sub-continent, and even China. Today, over half of the Muslim Ummah follows Imām Abū Ḥanīfa’s school of thought. 

Abū Ḥanīfa’s death

Like Prophet Yūsuf before him, and many scholars including Imām Aḥmad as well as those currently languishing in prisons, Imām Abū Ḥanīfa was unjustly imprisoned. He had been invited on at least two occasions to accept the position of Qāḍi (judge) but refused both invitations. After declining the position on the second invitation, Abū Ja’far al-Mansūr al- ‘Abbāsi ordered the imprisonment of Abū Ḥanīfa for the first time in his life. There are some reports that he was also lashed 110 times.

On this, Imām Abū Ḥanīfa commented:

قال: كان غم والدتي أشد علي من الضرب

“The grief that I knew my mother was experiencing because of my trial was more painful than the lashes.”[27]

At the fragile age of 70, Imām Abū Ḥanīfa, the son of a rich merchant, spent his final days enduring cruel conditions in captivity. As the days passed, his body tired and his limbs became weak, but he remained resolute. This is one of the miraculous qualities of īmān – despite the body being bloodied and bruised, the soul stands tall and defiant.

Nevertheless, there is only so much an old man can take. In the year 150AH in the month of Rajab – whilst he was fettered in chains[28] – Imām Abū Ḥanīfa’s soul would return to its Creator. Some have suggested that al-Mansūr had in fact poisoned the Imām’s food. If this is true, one can be hopeful of the position of martyrdom for this great Imām. We ask Allah that it is so.

Imām Ibn Kathīr said:

وصُلِّي عليه ببغداد ست مرات لكثرة الزحام، وقبره هناك رحمه الله

“The funeral prayer was conducted six times in Baghdad due to the masses of people. His grave is there. May Allah have mercy upon him.”[29]

Allah’s mercy upon this Ummah is vast, for in the same year in which Imām Abū Hanīfa passed away, another great Imām would be born: Muḥammad b. Idrīs Al-Shāfi’ī. The scholars would later say:

مات قمر وولد قمر

“A moon died and another was born.”



[1] Literally in reference to the “science of discourse”, which is concerned with firmly establishing religious beliefs by adducing proofs and banishing doubts.

[2] Tārīkh Baghdād

[3] Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā

[4] ‘Abdullāh b. Mubārak was a student of both Abū Ḥanīfa and Sufyān al-Thawri whilst becoming a scholar in his own right. He was also celebrated for defending the borders of Islām.

[5] Manāqib al-Muwaffaq

[6] Al-Qur’an, 5:89

[7] Muslim, on the authority of Zayd b. Arqām

[8] Musnad al-Dārimi

[9] Jāmi’ al-Bayān al-‘Ilm wa Fadlih, by Ibn ‘Abd-al-Barr

[10] Akhlāq al-‘Ulamā, by al-Ājurry

[11] Al-Khayrāt al-Ḥisān

[12] Tārīkh Baghdād

[13] Naṣb al-Rāya

[14] Manāqib al-Imām al-A’dham Abū Ḥanīfa

[15] Al-Ḥāwi al-Kabīr

[16] In other words, people see him of no value at present, but when the armies clash during times of war, people will realise his true value when they miss his brave contributions on the front line.

[17] Tārīkh Baghdād

[18] Al-Ādāb al-Shar’iyya

[19] Al-Khayrāt al-Ḥisān

[20] Aḥmad, on the authority of Abū Hurairah

[21] Al-Bukhārī, on the authority of ‘Āishah

[22] Iḥyā ‘Ulūm Al-Dīn

[23] Ḥilya al-Awliyā’, on the authority of Zayd b. Arqām

[24] A process of deductive analogy

[25] Manāqib Abū Ḥanīfa

[26] Modern-day Syria, Palestine, and parts of Lebanon

[27] Tārīkh Baghdād

[28] Others have argued that he died as a free man.

[29] Al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah


Shaikh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is a UK national of Palestinian origin. He gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari’ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Ustādh Ali is the author of several books including ‘The Daily Revivals’ and ‘The Ten Lanterns”, and continues to deliver sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.

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