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Standing against Radicalism: The Example of Abu Hanifa
Jan 1, 2015

Radicalism is a destructive force that threatens bonds within a society. It violates social order, for those who adopt radicalism assume their views as the norm and dictate that all must follow their lifestyle. Radicalism has a potential to reveal itself even more violently when aligned with some religious beliefs, which often serve as a great source of motivation for their adherents, especially when the religion itself is misinterpreted.

Abu Hanifa (d. 767 CE) is considered a leading scholar of Islamic law and his thoughts led to the formation of the Hanafi school of Islam, which has the greatest following among schools. Abu Hanifa's time was an era of intense political and social mobility. While new conquests brought in new cultural and religious components, the political authority aspired to disseminate an official form of Islam; at the same time, new groups and formations emerged to respond to changing conditions. Unfortunately, these conditions led to some groups being radicalized. Abu Hanifa's stance against radicalism was exemplary and his arguments are still worthwhile today.

His political attitude

Abu Hanifa represents the prototype of an independent scholar. He was wary of state power, believing that it corrupted intellectual honesty in the interest of preserving power; thus, he did not hold an official political position. This was a brave stance, as he was seriously persecuted for it. Yet his independence allowed him to see radicalism - on both sides of the political spectrum - for the danger that it was.

Understanding of Islamic jurisprudence

Abu Hanifa is considered the pioneer of the school of sound opinion (ray), which advocates seeking solutions to social-judicial problems by using reason together with religious essentials and scholarly comparison (qiyas). Deductive reasoning (ijtihad), juristic preference for the better (istihsan), and acceptable custom (urf) have an important place in his understanding of Islamic jurisprudence. We can infer that he also believed in the necessity of taking social and psychological realities into account when making religious judgments; this was what he did in practice.

Abu Hanifa did not choose a reductionist approach by restricting himself to the frame of religious essentials, but produced solutions to the questions he faced—or could possibly face—by benefiting from the sources mentioned along with the Qur'an and Sunnah. It is possible to define his approach to jurisprudence as an understanding that places humanity in the center; his views expanded the domain of legitimacy and accepted components of historical and cultural heritage that do not contradict the spirit of religion and belief of Divine oneness, such as local customs and practices. This broad perspective ran contrary to radical beliefs. Because the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence does not disregard real problems in life, it is more capable of solving them.

Abu Hanifa viewed education and debate as essential to his jurisprudence. He would bring a certain problem - some of them contemporary, and some hypothetical - to the attention of his students, each of whom was an expert on an Islamic discipline such as tafsir, hadith, and fiqh; he would let them discuss that matter in detail, follow the discussions with patience, and come to a conclusive judgment according to the strength of the arguments. But he would still tolerate the opposing thoughts of his disciples, such as Imam Muhammad and Abu Yusuf, and let those thoughts come to life. All of their opposing thoughts were recorded, and people acted upon most of them.

We can accept Abu Hanifa's educational method as a pluralist and democratic one, which also teaches how to forbear different opinions with patience. It shows the value of viewing an issue from different points of view. Despite its value, there were some groups that did not support Abu Hanifa's methods.

His understanding of belief

Some groups had formed prior to Abu Hanifa as extensions of the extremist Kharijites. They not only directly declared believing Muslims who sinned were apostates, but they also attacked them and tried to exterminate them in the name of religion. The Kharijites even declared Caliph Ali - and many other devout believers - apostates. Though the Kharijites were the most violent, other groups - including the Mutazilites - also persecuted certain religious groups when they came to political power. Unfortunately, this act of dividing society into groups inevitably led to more violence.

According to one definition, it is possible for religion to be a dividing or uniting factor within a society. It can be a great force for good when it is kept separate from the political machinations of power. In his work Fiqh al-Akbar, Abu Hanifa defined the concept of religion (din) in terms of its contents by saying, "Religion is the title given to the entirety of religion, faith, submission, and religious judgments." Abu'l Muntaha, the scholar who annotated this definition, states that the word religion has different uses, sometimes meaning belief, sometimes submission, and sometimes as the Divine judgments conveyed by a certain Prophet. However, at his answer to the question directed to him about the difference between religion and religious law, Abu Hanifa he expressed that he saw a difference between them. He did not only acknowledge this difference, but also gave a religious and rational explanation for it.

According to Abu Hanifa, religion (din) and religious law (shariah) are separate concepts. He accepted religion as the principles to be believed in - namely, the belief of Divine unity, and faith in the existence and unity of God. Religious law, however, is a body of judgments related to different aspects of human life such as worship, interpersonal relations, and the like. Abu Hanifa interpreted the Qur'anic verse meaning, "I have not created the jinn and humankind but to worship Me (exclusively)" (Dhariyat 56), in the sense of, "So that they know Me and acknowledge my Oneness."

He believed the origin of religion is the belief in the unity of God. Obviously, this definition is based on the distinction between the essence of religion and what it necessitates. Here, belief is the absolute condition of religion, because a person belonging to a certain religion is a matter of accepting the essential teachings of that religion, rather than observing the acts of worship commanded by that religion.

Abu Hanifa came to this conclusion about religion by considering the fact that the essentials of belief brought by the Prophets are the same, but there are certain differences on other issues, such as worship. The Prophets of God did not belong to different religions. None of them commanded their people to forsake the religion of the previous Prophets, since their faith is the same. On the other hand, every Prophet invited their people to follow the law they conveyed, as decreed by God Almighty for that specific people, not necessarily following the exact law conveyed by the previous Prophets. There were many different codes for different peoples. It is for this reason that God Almighty states, "(For each community) ...We have appointed a clear way of life and a comprehensive system (containing the principles of that way and how to follow it). And if God had so willed, He would surely have made you a single community (following the same way of life and system surrounded by the same conditions throughout all history)" (Maedah 48).

The faith of Divine oneness is always the same and religion does not change from one Prophet to another in this sense; it is the systems and their rules that change. If "religion" were fulfilling everything God commands and avoiding everything He forbids, then a person who fails to observe only one command or commits one forbidden act would be an apostate. As such, the legal judgments between fellow believers such as marriage, receiving an inheritance, attending a funeral, and the like would be invalid. However, it is having belief that makes them lawful between fellow believers. Other commands come after having accepted religion. If the commanded acts were faith itself, then God would not call His servants believers until they fulfilled the acts He commanded.

In order to support the point stated above, Abu Hanifa asserted the fact that when believers are excused from certain acts at certain times, they are still considered to have faith: a menstruating woman who abandons the daily prayers, a man who has a valid excuse abandons the Ramadan fasting, or a poor man who cannot give the alms of zakat are still considered believers. If such observances were identical to having faith, failing to observe them for some excuse would have the same meaning. However, it is impossible to make such a claim. According to Abu Hanifa, there is no complete relation between faith and deeds, since they are separate things.

Abu Hanifa stated that the following verses and others of similar meaning also point to the same fact:

"Tell those of My servants who believe that they must establish the Prayer in conformity with its conditions..." (Ibrahim 31); "O you who believe! Prescribed for you is retaliation in cases of (deliberate, unjust) killing..." (Baqarah 178); "O you who believe! Remember and mention God much" (Ahzab 41).

If the commanded acts were identical with belief or faith (iman), then God would not address people as believers until they fulfilled those acts. In addition, God Almighty separates having faith and good deeds in other verses as well:

"Except those who believe and do good righteous deeds..." (Asr 3); "No! Rather, whoever submits his whole being to God (and does so) as one devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing him, his reward is with his Lord, and all such will have no fear, (for they will always find My help and support with them), nor will they grieve" (Baqarah 112); "But whoever wishes for the Hereafter and strives for it as it should be striven for, being a believer..." (Isra 19).

This distinction proves that faith is not the same as deeds. Believers observe the prayers, fasting, zakat, Hajj, and they make remembrance of God owing to their faith - but they are not considered to have faith for having observed these. This proves that they do good deeds after having faith (iman) already.

In his letter to Uthman al-Batti, a scholar from Basra, Abu Hanifa stated this view with reference to different proofs. He used the following example: an indebted man firstly acknowledges his debt and pays it afterwards, but not vice versa. His acknowledgement of the debt is not for having paid the debt, but his paying is for having acknowledged the debt.

Abu Hanifa did not believe that a person who sins is out of the sphere of faith; nor are they an apostate. He expressed this point, saying, "Those who have acknowledged the direction to turn for worship are believers. I cannot count them as having forsaken faith owing to some command they do not observe. As for one who abandons some obligatory acts in spite of having faith, that person is a believer, but a sinful one (he is not a disbeliever)."

Abu Hanifa argued that what would make one an unbeliever is not committing a forbidden act, but considering it lawful; not abandoning an obligatory command, but considering it unnecessary.

Abu Hanifa also pointed out that real believers commit sins not by considering them lawful, but by giving in to their carnal soul. When asked, "If God is dearer for a believer than everything, why does a believer rebel Him? Is it possible for a person to rebel while having sincere love for God?" the great imam replied, "Yes, a child loves his father, but sometimes disobeys him. The situation of a believer is the same...He commits sins not owing to a lack of love for God, but for giving in to the feeling of lust or something similar."

Some claimed that this stance aligned Abu Hanifa with the school of Murjia, whose adherents believed that sins would not nullify one's faith, but Abu Hanifa soundly argued that it is not possible to guarantee anything in matters of faith:

"We cannot say that sins do not harm a believer at all. Similarly, we cannot say that a person who commits sins will not enter Hell. Neither can we say our good deeds are accepted and our evil deeds are forgiven... However, who commits good deeds in conformity with all of the conditions of validity...and dies as a believer without nullifying those deeds, then God does not let those deeds be in vain, but rewards them." We need to clarify at this point that by this definition Abu Hanifa did not refer to an argument as if religion was a matter of conscience only; religion for him is a comprehensive system of life that concerns all aspects of believers' existence.

While founding the most developed school of Islamic jurisprudence, Abu Hanifa defined religion with reference to its essence, pinpointing the difference between religion and other factors related to religion. His definition of religion as the faith of Divine oneness is very important in terms of maintaining social unity. Such a definition does not lessen the importance of religion's other requirements. Moreover, the political and social conditions of his time called for such a definition. For this reason, Abu Hanifa made a definition that referred to the essence of religion and aimed to maintain unity in society by counteracting the tendency to easily condemn those with different opinions.

This is valuable even today, as taking belief in Divine unity as the basis of religion allows followers of different monotheistic religions to meet on common grounds. In the Qur'an, God Almighty addresses Muslims in the person of the Prophet and demands them to call People of the Book to a common word between them: "O People of the Book, come to a word common between us and you, that we worship none but God, and associate none as partner with Him, and that none of us take others for Lords, apart from God" (Al Imran 3: 64).


When Abu Hanifa's world of thought and understanding of life are studied, it's clear that his viewpoint valued differences and did not permit persecution. This perspective still bears significance in terms of peaceful coexistence in today's societies. Such a magnanimous attitude can help to combat radical attitudes and inclinations for violence.