Schools of Islamic Law

Schools of Legal Thought

These are not legal schools in the modern sense of departments in an educational institution. Instead they are schools of legal thought. Each school features not only a body  of agreed doctrine, but also an agreed set of methods, techniques and sources by means of which that doctrine has been and will continue to be developed. In Sunni Islam, there are four of these schools. Each agrees on the primacy of Qur’an followed by that of the Sunnah (inclusive of hadith) as the sources of law. However each school  may add additional items to these two primary sources. The number of additional sources or interpretive techniques and the arrangement of these in a hierarchy of authority, however differs between the schools. The four law schools in Sunni Islam are: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali. The schools are named after the founders or notable figures shaping legal thought.

The Relation of the Schools

Each of these schools recognise the validity of the other three. A Muslim may adopt one, no single one, or any combination of the four schools as their own, that which they will follow. Although historically and today particular schools have predominated within geographic regions of the world, that is not binding upon an individual Muslim, except in cases where there is state enforcement of law based in one of the legal schools. This was the case with the Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire subject to the Hanafi legal school in the form of the Majella.

Distinctive Orientations of the Four Schools

To broadly characterise the four legal schools; the Hanafi is regarded as the most liberal in the sense it permits the greatest scope for analogical reasoning, opinion, and equity or judicial preference. The Maliki emphasises the consensus that emerged among Muslims living in and around the Prophet Muhammad when he was in Medina. The Shafi’i recognises consensus and analogical reasoning as third and fourth ranked sources after Qur’an and Sunnah.  The Hanbali is the most strict in the sense that it does not recognise independent reasoning as legitimate, and holds out the most stringent interpretation of  religious matters, tempered by a more flexible approach to commercial matters.

Electicism in Islamic Jurisprudence

A judge may select from multiple legal schools within a single judgment. As may a party or the representative of a party. A contract may stipulate one or more schools of law, none, or a combination. Therefore rather than representing a cause for confusion or legal uncertainty the existence of multiple schools of Islamic law and the distinctions between them comprise a resource from which practitioners and scholars may draw in developing the Islamic law of commerce and finance.