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Who Are the Four Aimmah (Imaams) of Islam?

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    Who Are the Four Aimmah (Imaams) of Islam?

    By: ‘Abd Ar-Rahmaan ‘Abd Al-Khaaliq


    There have been thousands and thousands of great, sincere scholars of Islam, generation after generation, since the time of the pious companions to this day. No time has passed without there being someone who stood to establish the evidence of Allah


    against the people.

    In spite of this fact, only four scholars have achieved fame. The first of them was born at the end of the first century, and the last died before the middle of third century, i.e., they lived during a span of only one hundred and fifty years. Then what is the reason for the fame of the four Aimmah (pl. of Imaam)? Why are most of the people confined to them in matters of Fiqh (Jurisprudence)? What attitude does the Ummah have towards these Aimmah (may Allah bless them)?

    1- Imaam Abu Haneefah (RA):

    Chronologically, the first of these Aimmah is Imaam An Nu’maan Abu Haneefah (RA). He was born in 80 A.H, and died in 150 A.H. He grew up in Al-Koofah and became famous in Fiqh and opinion. ‘Umar bin Hubairah, then ruler of ‘Iraq, tried to make him the chief justice but he refused. Then Al-Khaleefa Abu Ja’far Al-Mansoor coaxed him to accept the position but he refused. As a result he was imprisoned until his death. He earned his living as a cloth merchant and spent his life teaching in Al-Koofah and Baghdad. Allah blessed him with a group of devoted students who learned from him and put down what he said. Among them were Abu Yoosuf, Muhammad bin Al-Hassan Ash-Shaybaanee, and Zufar bin Al-Huthayl. Imaam Abu Haneefah achieved such great fame in his use of analogy and opinion and in the establishment of the proof of his opinion to the extent that Imaam Maalik said of him, “I saw a man whom if I asked to prove that this pillar is gold, he will be able to prove it!”

    This incident, of course, showed the power of his reasoning in convincing people. Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee said, “People are dependent on Abu Haneefah for Fiqh.”

    His method of teaching was as follows: He would gather with his followers in the Masjid and give them a problem. Then everyone would go back to search for a solution, and later they would gather again with their answers. In the end the Imaam would analyze, criticize, or reject their opinions and give his own opinion, which would be recorded by his students. He often prohibited his students from writing everything said. Once he said to Abu Yoosuf, “O, Ya’qoob, do not write of me whatever I say, for we are human beings. We say something today and turn back on it the following day, and we say something tomorrow and cancel it the day after.”

    The Imaam depended on opinion to a great extent because he did not have many correct Ahaadeeth (sayings and traditions of the Prophet) at hand, and therefore, his school of Fiqh came to be known as the school of opinion. This school came under heavy fire and criticism from the school of Hadeeth, which started with the advent of Imaam Maalik bin Anas (RA) and achieved popularity with the coming of Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee (RA). It reached its pinnacle with Imaam Ahmed (RA).

    This happened because Imaam Maalik put together Al-Muwatta, which was agreed upon to be the most correct book in its time, after Al-Qur’an. Then Ash-Shaafi’ee, who read Al-Muwatta and learned from Imaam Maalik, had access to additional correct Ahaadeeth. Later, Imaam Ahmed completed his great book, Al-Musnad, in which he included 40,000 Hadeeth, and this has been the largest reference work of As-Sunnah.

    This collection was influential in putting to an end many of the opinions adopted through Ijtihaad (mental capability to extract rulings) by the school of opinion which unknowingly opposed the authentic Hadeeth.

    2- Imaam Maalik (RA):

    After this commentary on the school of opinion and the school of Hadeeth we now turn to the second of the four A-immah, Imaam Maalik, may Allah have mercy on him. He was born in 93 A.H., and died in 179’ A.H., i.e. twenty nine years after the death of Imaam Abu Haneefah.

    Maalik grew up in Al-Madeenah. He loved knowledge and respected and glorified the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). He was only 20 years old when the scholars bore witness to his knowledge and proclaimed him capable of Ijtihaad and giving Fatawa.

    Maalik compiled Al-Muwatta on Al-Mansoor’s incentive, who then wanted to make it law for all the people. Maalik, however, refused to allow his book to be made into law and told him that knowledge was dispersed in different provinces and that he had compiled what had reached him and what he had found correct. Maalik did not escape problems with the rulers. Complaints were made against him to Abu Ja’far by the uncle of Al-Mansoor, Abu Ja’far, then, he was flogged until his shoulders were dislodged. He liked to give dictation in his lessons and did not like interruptions. This is in full contrast to the method employed by Imaam Abu Haneefah. In spite of the fact that Maalik learned Fiqh from his teacher Rabee’ah bin Abdul Rahmaan, who opined to a great degree and thus came to be known as “Rabee’ah of the opinion.” he despised opinion and said, “I wish I were given a lash for every opinion I gave so that I may be free of guilt on the Day of Judgement.”

    Imaam Maalik’s reputation spread, and delegations of students and scholars from as far as Al-Maghrib and Al-Andalus came to him with questions, seeking his knowledge, and his Fiqh was recorded by devoted students.

    3- Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee (RA):

    Of the greatest legacies that Imaam Maalik left was his student Ash-Shaafi’ee (150 – 204 A.H.), the diligent student who memorized Al-Muwatta and read it to Maalik. Ash Shaafi’ee started giving people Fatwa when he was only 15 years old. Muslim bin Khaalid bore witness to this and said, “Give Fatwa, Abu Abdullah, by Allah you have reached the position where you can give Fatwa.”

    Ash-Shaafi’ee shuttled between Makkah and Al-Madeenah and surprised people with his knowledge of Al-Qur’an, his outstanding Fiqh, his expertise in As-Sunnah, and his sweet, perfect language. A mistake was never found in his language. A person like Ahmed bin Hanbal sat in his lessons; and when Mahfooth bin Abu Tawbah Al-Baghdaadee asked him, “O, Abu Abdullah, there is Sufyaan bin ‘Uyaynah lecturing in the corner of the Masjid?” Ahmed replied, “That I can miss, but not this!”

    Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee toured the Islamic provinces, and he travelled to Iraq and debated with Imaam Abu Haneefah’s students, scholars such as Muhammad bin Al-Hasan Ash-Shaybaane and Zufar. They said that they renounced one third of the opinions of Imaam Abu Haneefah and followed the Ijtihaad and opinion of Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee. This exemplifies that the A-immah and their students were searching for the truth and not following blindly.

    Ahmad bin Hanbal (RA) had a great love for his contemporary and teacher Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee although they did have differences on some matters of Fiqh. They disagreed, for example, about the ruling regarding the Muslim who does not pray and the one who takes back a present he gave, and they debated on many other matters. Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee benefitted from many authentic Ahaadeeth during his time with Ahmed bin Hanbal. Ash-Shaafi’ee used to say to Ahmed, “You know the Hadeeth better than I do, so what you find correct, let us know in order that we may act accordingly.”

    Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee then travelled to Egypt and remained there. His journey was a blessing for the Egyptians who surrounded him and learned from him. He died in 204 A.H. When the news of his death reached Imaam Ahmed bin Hanbal, he was deeply grieved; and he cried incessantly until his son Abdullah, seeing his state of grief, asked him, “Father! Who was this man Ash-Shaafi’ee?” He said, “O my son! Ash-Shaafi’ee was as the sun is to this world and as the health is to the body. Can you find a replacement for these two things?” This is the height of loyalty and sincerity.

    4- Imaam Ahmad bin Hanbal (RA):

    The fourth Imaam in chronological order is Imaam Ahmad bin Hanbal Ash-Shaybaanee (RA). He was born in 164 A.H., and died in Baghdaad on a Friday in 241 A.H.

    Imaam Ahmed started learning the knowledge of Hadeeth at a tender age. He listened to his teachers in Baghdaad and then traveled to Al-Hijaaz and to Al-Yemen to acquire Hadeeth. He performed Hajj on foot several times. He started compiling what he heard until he had collected a great number of Ahaadeeth.

    He became famous among people by his piety and goodness, his lack of concern for worldly things and his personal cleanliness to the extent that he became the example for these attributes. He used to base his Fatwa on Hadeeth, and he rarely gave a mere opinion. Actually, he disliked giving opinions and said, “To me a weak Hadeeth is better than opinion.” Al-Khallaal, Ahmed’s student, said of him, “Ahmed had written books of opinion and memorized them, but later he would not turn to them.”

    However, Imaam Ash-Shaafi’ee impressed Ahmed not because of his opinions but for his understanding of the principles and his inference from them. This vast study of Hadeeth not only enabled Imaam Ahmed to become knowledgeable about the laws of Islam but also enabled him to surpass others in his understanding of the creeds of Islam and issues of Eemaan (Faith).

    He successfully challenged all deviation in belief or action that occurred during his time. He criticized the Soofee (sufi) pioneers of his time for initiating the discussion about matters of devil’s whispering and reflections. He refuted the atheists. Similarly he fought Al-Jahmiyah group, who did not believe in the attributes of Allah. He also stood strong and firm against Al-Mu’tazilah, who said that Al-Qur’an was created (not uttered by Allah) and then wanted people to follow them after they had misled Al-Khaleefah Al-Ma-moon.

    In this last tribulation, the tribulation claiming that Al-Qur’an was created, Imaam Ahmad and a few of his companions bore with patience imprisonment, beating and punishment.

    Imaam Ahmed debated with Ibn Abu Du’aad, the leader of Al-Mu’tazilah, in front of Al-Khaleefah Al-Waathiq Billah, and Allah made clear the truth through Imaam Ahmed. The evil of Al-Mu’tazilah was forever gone after that defeat.

    In short, Imaam Ahmed became the leader without rival of Ahl As-Sunnah in his time and was the teacher of those who came after him and a pillar of the knowledge of Hadeeth. Al-Bukhaaree, Muslim and Abu Daawood were his students. Thus Imaam Ahmed was by himself a whole Ummah, a master for Ahl Al-Hadeeth, and a teacher for Ahl As-Sunnah.

    The day he died was a remarkable day. All of Baghdad, men and women, came out to give farewell respect to him – not the Muslims only but also the Jews and Christians. It is said that more than twenty thousand of these embraced Islam on that day! No one was left but he cried for him.

    This was a brief review of the four Aimmah’s biographies. May Allah bless and be pleased with all of them. It became clear to us that all of them were brethren in this Deen (Religion) and adhered to the truth in preaching and in practice. They acquired knowledge from each other and they debated each other. No one of them was fanatic to his own opinion. No one of them called the people to blindly follow him. Rather, all of them forbade their students from blind imitation and commanded them to follow the truth and the evidence.

    This way, the four Aimmah left for us a wonderful heritage of knowledge, Fiqh, inference, and Hadeeth. Their contribution in pushing the wheel of understanding in this Deen was magnificent.

    (Translated By: Haaroon ‘Ateeq Baabry)



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    "I put my trust in Allah, my Lord and your Lord! There is not a moving creature, but He has a grasp of its forelock. Verily, my Lord is on the straight path. (The truth)"
    (11:55-56)
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