This is the first 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.
Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari wrote a work named The Fiqh of the People of Iraq and their Hadith. The people of Iraq here refer to the Hanafi scholars. This text and author are very significant.
The author was born in the year 1297AH and died in 1371AH (early 1950s). He was deputy to the Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Empire at the time of its fall. He was the head teacher during its fall. Outside this official role, he was indeed one of the great scholars in the first half of the 20th century.
He defended the way of Ahl al-Sunna against modernist and literalist forces. Modernists, literalists and reformists actively attacked the Hanafi method from the beginning of the 20th century. This increased. A lot of funding went into attacking key elements of mainstream Islamic methods.
The Hanafi school has been the most prevalent of the Sunni schools. It was predominant in the legal system and in issuing legal verdicts in the Ottoman lands as well as the lands under Ottoman influence.
The Land of Iraq
Imam Kawthari situates the Hanafis in the context of the expansion of Islam. The heart of Islam during the time of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), Abu Bakr, and the first part of the time of Umar was Madina as the seat of the caliphate was there.
In the first phase of Umar’s caliphate, he did not permit the senior companions to leave Madina. This was part of his educational vision. People had to come to Madina to learn. The senior-most companions were also around Umar for consultation.
As things became consolidated, Umar enacted a deliberate and systematic plan. Hundreds of companions, including a large proportion of the senior-most companions (such as Abdullah ibn Mas’ud) were sent to Iraq to expand the religious foundation of Islam.
Madina and Makkah remained great centers of religious learning and Iraq became another pillar of religious learning. Within a few generations, the two great schools of Arabic language were the Kufans and the Basrans.
Ahl al-Iraq does not refer to the people of Iraq in general. It refers to its scholars: the Hanafi school. The Hanafi school predominated from the time of Abu Hanifa in Iraq. The title of Imam Kawthari, therefore, reflects continuity. By the people of Iraq he meant the Hanafis.
Imam Kawthari’s treatise outlines critical components of the Hanafi school’s legal method as well as its method in hadith. Much of the details of the legal rulings come from hadith. The objection propagated was that the Hanafis followed reason rather than the hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
The purpose here is to understand the key distinguishing elements of the Hanafi school. One can appreciate how the school works along with some of its key characteristics.
Imam Kawthari is most famous for his brilliance in hadith. However, he was a true encyclopedic scholar. He was a brilliant jurist and theologian. Nonetheless, most of his works revolve around hadith, particularly in its relationship to defending and supporting the Hanafi school.
Out of not paying attention to the context that scholars wrote in, sometimes, students of knowledge wonder why Imam Kawthari is being so angry. Part of the reason why is because of internal and external attacks on mainstream Islam. This was done by systematically attacking the Hanafi school at a time when the Muslims had grave civilizational challenges.
Muslims entered the 20th century with great economic and political weakness. The result of which saw the fall of the Ottomans.
As well as political and economic weakness, there was a systematic imposition of Western, secular, materialist, atheistic, nationalistic and societal forces to “modernize” the Muslim mind. To cut it off from its religion, religious tradition and its religious values.
Rather than attending to the key civilizational challenges there was an internal attack. Imam Kawthari is there at the gates outraged at some of these things. One of the biggest attacks was on the Hanafis. Deemed to be people of reason who have nothing to do with hadith, reformists sought to circumvent the schools of law to promote their way.
Imam Kawthari reminds of great work. A group of Indian scholars worked in very difficult circumstances to edit and publish Imam Abdullah ibn Yusuf al-Zayla‘i’s work, Nasb al-Raya fi Takhrij Hadith al-Hidaya.
Al-Zayla‘i referenced, sourced and provided evidentiary support for the hadith narrations quoted by Imam Marghinani in the Hidaya. This demonstrated the evidentiary basis of the Hanafi school. Nasb al-Raya is no less rich in its evidentiary nuance than similar works in other schools.
One cannot neglect or deny the great contribution of the Hanafis to the science of hadith. Both early on and later in Islamic scholarship, the Hanafis had a great role in the science of hadith.
Many early Muslims (including Abu Hanifa) attacked reason that was not rooted in revelation. This attack was not on reason as reason. That would be absurd. Allah says:
“Can they not even think?” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 36:68]
And He says:
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ ٱلْقُرْءَانَ ۚ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ ٱللَّهِ لَوَجَدُوا۟ فِيهِ ٱخْتِلَـٰفًۭا كَثِيرًۭا
“Can they not have pondered the full import of the Quran? Had it been from any but Allah Himself, they had found in it much discord.” [Keller, The Quran Beheld 4:82]
“Whomever Allah wishes well for,” said our beloved Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), “He grants deep understanding of religion.” Fiqh is the capacity for deep understanding. That requires reason.
As the generations passed and new issues arose. Questions were asked. Some addressed legal, theological and philosophical questions from a solid grounding of revelation and transmitted method. But others took on foreign ways of reasoning, disconnected from tradition. Abu Hanifa reportedly said, “Religion is not by reason.” Meaning by reason alone.
The reason that is blameworthy and cautioned against by the early Imams is a reason that is not rooted in revelation and based on a sound interpretive method.