The Third Imam, Abu Abd Allah Muhammad bin Idrees, better known as Imam Shafii, who is the founder of Shafii School of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), belonged to the Quraish tribe, was a Hashimi and remotely connected with the Prophet of Islam. He was born in 767 A.C. in Ghazza. He lost his father in his childhood and was brought up in poverty by his talented mother.
In Makkah, the young Imam learnt the Holy Quran by heart. He spent considerable time among the bedouins and acquired a thorough grounding in old Arab poetry. Later, he studied Tradition and Fiqh from Muslim Abu Khalid Al-Zinji and Sufyan ibn Uyaina. He learnt Muwatta by heart when he was only thirteen.
When about 20, he went to Imam Malik ibn Anas at Medina and recited the Muwatta before him which was very much appreciated by the Imam. He stayed with Imam Malik till the latter’s death in 796 A.C.
His poor financial condition obliged him to accept a government post in Yemen, which was a stronghold of Alids who were much suspected by the Abbaside Caliphs. He was involved in Alid intrigues and was brought as a prisoner along with other Alids before the Abbaside Caliph, Haroon-ar-Rashid, to Rakka in 803 A.C.
The Caliph, on learning the Imam’s arguments in his defence set him free with honour. In Baghdad, he became intimate with the celebrated Hanafi Scholar Muhammad ibn al Hasan Al Shaibani.
Later, in 804 A.C., he went to Syria and Egypt via Harran. He was given an enthusiastic welcome in Egypt by the pupils of Imam Malik. He spent six years in teaching jurisprudence in Cairo and arrived in Baghdad in 810 A.C. where he set up successfully as a teacher. A large number of leamed scholars of Iraq became his pupils. In 814 he returned to Egypt but, as a result of disturbances, was soon compelled to leave for Makkah.
He returned to Egypt in 815/16 A.C. to settle down finally there. He died on January 20, 820 A.C. (29 Rajab 204 A.H.) and was buried in the vault of Banu Abd al-Hakam at Fustat amidst universal mourning.
His tomb which was built by the Ayubid Ruler al-Malik al-Kamil in 1211/12 A.C. is a favourite place of pilgrimage.
Like his predecessors, Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik, Imam Shafii too refused to become Qazi (Judge) of the Abbaside regime. The years spent by him in Iraq and Egypt were the periods of his intensive activity. He spent most of his time in writing and lecturing. He was very methodical in his daily life and had systematically divided his time for different types of work and he seldom deviated from this routine.
“Al Shafii”, states the Encyclopaedia of Islam, “may be described as an eclectic who acted as an intermediary between the independent legal investigation and the traditionalism of his time. Not only did he work through the legal material available, but in his Risala, he also investigated the principles and methods of jurisprudence. He is regarded as the founder of ‘Usual al Fikh’. Unlike Hanafis, he sought to lay down regular rules for ‘Kiyas’, while he had nothing to do with ‘istihsan’. The principle of ‘ishtibah’, seems to have been first introduced by the later Shafis. In al-Shafii two creative periods can be distinguished, an earlier (Iraqi) and a later (Egyptian)”.
In his writings, he made a masterly use of dialogue. He elucidates the principles of jurisprudence in his Risala and has tried to adopt a mean between the Hanafi and Maliki jurisprudence. The collection of his writings and lectures in “Kitabul Umm” reveals his master intellect.
The main centres of his activity were Baghdad and Cairo. First of all, he follows the Quran, then the Sunnah. The most authentic Traditions of the Prophet are given the same consideration by him as Quran. He was very popular among the traditionists and the people of Baghdad called him the “Nazir-usSunnat” (exponent of the Traditions of the Prophet).
Imam Shafii who combined in himself the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as the fluent language of the people of Hejaz and Egypt, was matchless both in conversational and written language. His writings can favourably be compared with those of the best writers of Arabic language of his time, including Jahiz.
The teachings of Imam Shafii spread from Baghdad and Cairo to distant parts of Iraq, Egypt and Hejaz. The most notable of his pupils were al-Muzani, al-Buwaiti, al-Rabib Sulaiman, al-Maradi, al-Zafarani Abu Thawr, al-Humaidi, Ahmad ibn Hanbal and al-Karabisi.
During the third and fourth century A.H., the Shafüs won more and more of adherents in Baghdad and Cairo. In the fourth century, Makkah and Medina were the chief centres of Shafiite teachings besides Egypt.
The Shafiite School became predominant under Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi. But Sultan Baibars gave recognition to other Schools of Fiqh also and appointed judges of all the four Schools.
Before the advent of the Ottoman power, the Shafiites held absolute pre-eminence in the Central lands of Islam. During the beginning of the 16th century, A.C. the Ottomans replaced Shafii with Hanafi Imams. Nevertheless, Shafiite teachings remained predominant in Egypt, Syria, and Hejaz. It is still largely studied in Al-Azhar University of Cairo. The Shafiite Fiqh is still largely followed by the Muslims in South Arabia, Bahrain, Malay Archipelago, part of East Africa, and Central Asia.