The Hanafi Way: The Method of Abu Hanifa

This is the seventh article in a series based on the On Demand Course: The Hanafi Way: Lessons from Kawthari’s Fiqh Ahl al Iraq. It lays out the great defense of the Hanafi school in the 20th century by Imam Kawthari.

Appreciating Imam Abu Hanifa’s teaching method gives us many insights into how the Hanafi school works. Imam Abu Hanifa was very much a product of this Kufan tradition. There was a deep concern for Fiqh and its acquisition.

Remarkably, Abu Hanifa did not begin his life as a seeker of knowledge in a general sense. He was a trader. It was only well into his twenties that he dedicated himself fully to knowledge.

The educational milieu in Kufa was one of knowledge and religion. Abu Hanifa took from that. He gathered between fundamental pillars of religious knowledge such as knowledge of the Quran, Hadith, the Arabic language, and fiqh. 

Building Deep Understanding 

The method of Imam Abu Hanifa in fiqh was not a reprehensible innovation. Rather, it was part of continuity. It was based on the student asking questions and the teacher asking questions, testing his students as a result. 

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) taught by encouraging the asking of questions. He (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not just answer the question. In his answers he gave keys, principles and foundations to build the knowledge, understanding and intellect of the Companions.

The Arabic Heartland

The strength of the Arabic language in this was also particularly important. This was one of the great pillars. There was an emphasis on the preservation of the Arabic language. 

The second caliph, Umar, as well as the other Companions, did not like for people to speak other than Arabic. 

Kufa and Basra became heartlands of the Arabic language. One of the reasons why was because of the lack of a lot of external mixing there. 

A Touch of Praise

Imam Abu Hanifa was blessed by Allah with unique brilliance. Al-Hafidh Abdul Rahman ibn Al-Jawzi, a great Hanbali Hadith master mentioned that people do not differ regarding the understanding of Abu Hanifa or his fiqh. He mentions that Sufyan al-Thawri and Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak would both say:

“Abu Hanifa is the most learned of men.” 

Imam Malik ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school, was asked, “Have you seen Abu Hanifa?” He replied, “I saw a man, which if he talked to you about this pillar, if he wanted to tell you that it is gold he could convince you.” 

Imam al-Shafi‘i said, “People are the dependents of Abu Hanifa in fiqh.” 


Abu Hanifa did not one day just wake up and decide to teach in the way he did. Rather, it was how he had learned. He distilled that. 

There was an urgency to focus on this method. There was a loss of that understanding. Things were becoming more complex as people became increasingly worldly. Abu Hanifa directed himself to synthesize and formalize the teaching method of the people of Iraq. 

This method has certain characteristics. It was knowledge based on consultation. There was active enquiry from students to the teacher and the teacher actively engaged them. Training them.

This consultative way of learning was taken by large groups of people from large groups of people back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).

Forty Scholars of Fiqh

The school of Abu Hanifa was transmitted uniquely. Ibn Abi al-Awam mentions that the companions of Abu Hanifa who recorded his fiqh were forty accomplished scholars. He refers to them as the most senior of the senior scholars (meaning of that age).

Asad ibn Furat mentioned that the companions of Abu Hanifa who compiled works on the fiqh of Abu Hanifa and transmitted from him were forty scholars.

In terms of seniority of how long they spent with Abu Hanifa, he mentions Abu Yusuf, Zufar ibn Hudhayl, Dawud al-Ta’i, Asad ibn Amr and Yusuf ibn Khalid (one of the teachers of Imam Shafi‘i) and Yahya ibn Zakariya. Each of these had kept his company for decades.

The Case

People used to go to Abu Hanifa to seek an answer to a question. The students of Abu Hanifa would present response after response. Then they would raise it to Abu Hanifa and would ask him questions regarding it.

At times, they spent three days going back and forth on the issue and then they would record it. This is one way that explains multiple narrations from Abu Hanifa. 

The Circle

Abu Hanifa’s circle was structured. There was the outer circle of students, then the senior students, then the senior most students and then the senior most of the senior most students which were Abu Yusuf, Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan, Zufar, and al-Hasan. 

When questions came he would let the outer circle speak and he would listen. Sometimes he would approve of one line of reasoning or another line of reasoning, and at times people would record that. Then the senior students, then the more senior students. That is how there are secondary narrations from Abu Hanifa.

The Final Opinion

Occasionally, there would be a narration that Abu Hanifa approved of something or voiced an opinion, but that was not necessarily his final opinion on the issue. Whereas what is recorded in Dhahir al-Riwaya expresses (typically) the final opinion of Abu Hanifa. 

It is narrated that Abu Yusuf was told once by Abu Hanifa: “O Ya‘qub, woe be to you, do not write everything that you hear from me, because one day I may have this opinion, and then I may leave it, and then I have another opinion, and then I might leave that and have another opinion.” 

This refers to this process while the issue was being studied. He may express approval of a line of reasoning but this was the process of getting them to learn and understand. Knowledge is a capacity!

The Process

Why didn’t Abu Hanifa just write a book? His focus was to train. The books of Abu Hanifa are Abu Yusuf, Muhammad ibn Hasan, Al-Hasan ibn Ziyad, Zufar, and all those who took from him. His books are the Hanafi school.

The kind of numbers of students that Imam Abu Hanifa had is mind-boggling. Of the distinctions of Imam Abu Hanifa’s school is that he did not establish his school as his individual opinions. It was based on a consultative process.

Issues would come, the first circle of students would discuss it, then the second, and he would engage them occasionally on it. Till it came to the senior students. They would voice their opinions, and frequently he would express his opinion in approval, sometimes in disapproval of one thing and the other. 

The Students

There was active learning and discussion. He did not just go with his opinion. This is part of Imam Abu Hanifa’s taqwa as well. He did not hasten to express his opinion. 

This was also part of the training of his students. Sometimes he would remain on the same issue for a month or more (it was not all they would be doing for the month however). The senior most student, Abu Yusuf, would lay down the conclusion. 

Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan said:

“We never took an opinion ourselves except that Abu Hanifa had said it as well.”

That Abu Hanifa had said it not as a position, but that he had also indicated its soundness. 

It is mentioned that no Imam of the Imams of Islam had the number of companions (close students) as did Abu Hanifa and that the scholars, and the general public did not benefit in any way comparable to how they benefited from Abu Hanifa.