The word Sunni is derived from the Arabic word ‘Sunnah’ which implies a ‘way’, referring to “One of the path” or “one who follows the practices of  the Prophet”. At the time of the death of the Prophet, there was a quarrel between the two groups for imamate (the temporal leadership of the religion). One group upheld the principle of the election in choosing the Imam. This group is known as “Sunni”. The followers to the Sunni doctrine are called Sunni, Sunnis, Ahl us-Sunnah Wal Jama’ah.

As indicated by Sunni doctrine, the leader of Muslims, at any given moment, is the Caliph. He is mainly temporal (worldly) ruler than the religious chief. He needs to follow the “Shariat”. As indicated by Sunni doctrine, Caliphate is a political body headed by the Caliph. The thought was that the Caliph was to be chosen from among those most capable.

On issues concerning which no explicit command of Allah nor any authority of the Prophet is found, then, at that point,  great scholars in different area settled on their own Qiyas, the usual differences of opinion and difference in the interpretation that every one of them had their own clarification and reasons, they gave rise to different schools or codes of law. Such contrasts of opinion sometimes caused conflicting judgments. These divisions of the school didn’t spring initially out of the difference of legal or religious doctrine; rather, it was brought about by a dispute which, in its origin, was entirely political because of own reasons and arguments for their opinion of various schools.

It is universally accepted that all schools are as right path and come to the point that to follow anyone school as all are in right paths. In all these schools or codes of law, there is no mistake or contrast in law with respect to the meaning of the Quran and Sunnah. There is no distinction regarding the fundamental belief of Islam and the Islamic lifestyle. 

These schools are not separate sects, parties or casts. One school isn’t higher or lower than the other and each school is respecting other schools. It resembles to choose one lane to travel in multilane traffic along a similar path simultaneously.

The Sunnis base their doctrine on the entirety of the traditions and regard the concordant decisions of the successive Imams and the general body of jurists as supplementing the Koranic rules and as equal in authority to them. There are four significant schools of law among Sunni. They are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali.


The most prominent school among the four school of the Sunni school is the Hanafi school. Abu Hanifa was the founder of this school. He was an eminent scholar of his time and mostly known for his ability of logical reasoning and technical legal thought. So this school of sunni law is named after its founder Abu Hanifa. This school is also called as the Kufa school. Kufa is the city which is known as the city of learning. One of the outstanding contribution was, Abu Hanifa tried to find the law in the text of the Quran through analogical deduction. Abu Hanifa was of the view that law must be formulated according to the changing needs of the society. He was also in favour of interpreting the law in the light of juristic equity. Later on, with certain improvements the doctrines were developed by his two disciples Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad.

He was appointed as Qazi but he refused to accept the post in the fear that he would be required to give judgments against his conscience. As a punishment for his refusal to accept the post, he was imprisoned. During his life Kufa, the city where he was born and lived, had become an important centre of distinct thinking in Muslim law. This school is therefore, also called as the “Kufa School”. He is rightly called the ‘upholder of private judgments and the founder of Muslim jurisprudence.

The Hanafi School recognises only those traditions which have passed through the severe test regarding their originality. Those traditions which are not authentic are not to be accepted as law. The doctrines of this school being practical and most suitable to the changing conditions of the society have always been favoured by Caliphs and the emperors. Some of the important books on Hanafi law are Radd-Al-Makhtar, Durr-ul-Mukhtar, al-Hidyaya and Fatwai Alamgiri.

This school has been popular since its very beginning and a large number of Muslims are its followers. From Iraq, the home of this school, it spread over to other countries inhabited by Muslims such as, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Afghanistan, China and India etc. Majority of the Muslims in India and Pakistan belong to this school.

Salient features  of Hanafi school :

1- It is true that the foundation of the Islamic Fiqh i.e. Islamic Jurisprudence was laid down in the epoch making period of prophet Muhammad (PBUH) but the systematic work of codification was done by Imam Abu Hanifa or Nouman bin Sabith in the city of Kufa.

2- the legal doctrines of Imam Abu Hanifa was based on Quran and Hadith. Quran has been regarded as the first and primary source for deducting the civil and criminal laws. Thereafter importance was given to traditions. Imam Abu Hanifa narrated only 17 traditions and gave more preference to Qiyas.

3- One of the first Jurist who gave more prominence to the doctrine of Qiyas or analogical deduction. According to Abu Hanifa Qiyas are the result of casual occurrences. It is based on either Quran or tradition or Ijma.

4- Imam Abu Hanifa is also famous for the principle of Istihsan which is also known as juristic opinions. A distinctive name and prominent position was assigned to Imam Abu Hanifa for the principle of Istihsan through which the theory of law is modified in its application to actual facts.

5- One of the greatest contribution of Abu Hanifa was the codification of laws. He constituted a committee of some learned disciples who were Imams in their own fields. The committee headed by Abu Hanifa discussed the practical and theoretical questions and the conclusion which they agreed upon after a full and free debate were duly recorded.

6- Imam Abu Hanifa also gave preference to urf or usage. Abu Hanifa recognised the authority of local customs as a source of law. Many decision of Law are based on usage or customs, so much so that it has been taken as a principle of law. The Quran and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad PBUH were with him and with all the other jurists as the primary sources, ijma coming next to them, and analogy juristic preference and local customs being regarded merely as secondary sources.

Thus, Imam Abu Hanifa’s contribution is his distinguished and well trained disciples like Imam Abu Yusuf and Imam Zafar. Abu Hanifa was a pious man with an independent character and never bowed before the political authority or person in power and gave unbiased decisions on complicated issues. He even preferred to sacrifice his life for the sake of Justice. He was a jurist of the highest rank the world has ever seen.


Maliki or Madani School of thought was the second school of Islamic jurisprudence which was started from Medina the city of learning. It was founded by Imam Malik-Ibn Anas, The Maliki school originally flourished in Medina and then later on with time it spread to the rest of Arabia from whereto Egypt and to other countries of the world.

Malik-Ibn Anas was a great scholar and was regarded as one of the authority on tradition. Imam Malik was born in Medina, in the year 93 A.H. He learnt traditions from Abdur Rahman Ibn Hurmuz, Naafi Ib Zakwan and Yahya Ibn Sayeed. Imam studied Islamic jurisdiction with celebrated Jurist of Medina, Rabish Ibn Farrukh. Imam Malik dedicated his whole life for the studies of Islamic jurisprudence and Hadith. Thus Imam Malik was a pious man with an outstanding character and never bowed before any authority and gave decisions without any biasness.

Imam Mohammad, who was the Hanafi jurist, was Malik’s favourite student. Unlike Hanafis this school emphasises the importance of traditions as a ‘source of law’. It recognises the traditions of the Companions, and of successors of the Companions. According to Maliki School, as far as possible, the new rules should be obtained exclusively from the traditions.

If it is not possible then only Qiyas and Ijma may be taken into consideration. But this school recognises Ijma of only such jurists who lived in Medina. The scope of Ijma as a source of law is therefore limited under this school. Malik and the subsequent jurists of this school had the privilege of being judges and as such they had to solve day-to-day problems of the public.

This made their approach to law more practical than that of the Hanafis. A noticeable feature of this school is that it is the only school in which a married woman and her properties are always supposed to be under the control of her husband. A Maliki woman cannot deal with her own properties without the consent of her husband.

Khalil-ibn-Ishaq’s ‘al-Mukhtasar’ is  important work containing Maliki principles. The principles of this school spread over to the Central and West Africa, Spain, Kuwait, and Bahrain. There are no Malikis in India.

Salient feature of Maliki School :

1- Imam Malik gave more emphasis on tradition and usages of Medina. Imam Malik had a strong believe that the traditions of Medina have a prepondering weight since they must have been transmitted from the times of Prophet (PBUH).

2-Another important feature of Maliki school is the agreement of Ijma. Imam Malik recognised the authority of Ijma of the companions and the successors residing at Medina.

3- Imam Malik also defined Qiyas as the accord of a deduction with the original text in respect of the Istilah or effective cause of its law. The Maliki’s makes the deduction either by a text of the Qur’an or a Hadith.

4- Imam Malik gave more prominence to juristic equity. According to Maliki’s the deduction of laws should be based on the consideration of the public good. The doctrine of Public good is also known as Istilah.

Istilah as a principle of public utility is sound one. Only thing is that in its application, strict care must be taken so that it may not exceed the limits and must be within the ambit of the textual law of Islam.

5- One of the prominent work of the Imam Malik is the Kitab-al-Muwatta. It represents the codification of the fiqh and developed in the theological centre of Medina.

Thus, Imam Malik’s greatest contribution is his book “Muwatta”. He was a great traditionist as well as a profound jurist. He gave new shape to the traditions, usages and practices of Medina with his pious and independent character. Imam Malik devoted his whole life for the progress and development of Islamic legal learning. As a great scholar of Islamic learning he got respect from public as well as from the rulers of the time. Imam Malik’s “Muwatta” got so much respect and fame that every scholar felt proud to refer it.


Imam Shafi was the founder of Shafi School of Islamic Jurisprudence. His full name was Idris As-Shafi. He was a disciple of Malik Ibn Anas and was related to the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Imam Shafi also relied upon the traditions of the Holy Prophet. Imam Shafi developed his ideas and principle in Baghdad in Egypt. He used legal reasoning and critical analysis to examine the tradition so as to have a systematic rule of law. Abu Hanifa’s principle of juristic equity (Istihsan) is not acceptable to this school.

Imam Shafi was the first to incorporate usul or principles of law in his book kitab-ul-umm. His ‘Risala’ too contains the principles and method of jurisprudence. Other important works on Shafi doctrines are Tuhfat-al-Muhtaj by Hajar, Nihojat-al- Muhtaj by Ramli and Al-Wajiz by Ghazzali. From Cairo the Shafi principles spread in the lower parts of Egypt, Hejaz, Indonesia, Malaysia and South-East Asia. Some of the Muslims in the Western Coast of India are followers of this school.

Joseph Schacht rightly observes that his legal theory is the achievement of a powerful individual mind, and at the same time a logical outcome of a process which started when traditions from the Prophet were first adduced as arguments in law.

Salient features of Shafi school :

i- Imam Shafi was regarded as the creator of the classical theory of Islamic Jurisprudence and was the founder of science of usual. He also got the legacy of talents and logical reasoning as he was highly influenced by both Hanafi and Maliki School.

ii- According to Imam Shafi, the Quran is the best source of law. He says the Quran is the foundation of legal knowledge. Imam Shafi was of the view that Quran serves the double purpose of supplying raw material for legislation and inspiring ideal for the scholar who aimed at shaping his system of Law in harmony with that model. Imam Shafi cited 220 Quranic verses as specific rules of law.

iii- He gave more prominence to the traditions of the Prophet PUBH. Imam Shafi studied both the doctrine of Hanafi school as well as Maliki school. He made enormous use of Hadith found from different centres.

iv- Another important feature of Shafi school was that Imam Shafi was strong supporter of the doctrine of Ijma.

v-Imam Shafi was the first in point of time who gave regular rules for the deduction or Qiyas. According to him, Qiyas is the accord with a known thing by reason of equality of the one with another in respect of effective cause of its law.

Thus Imam was one of the greatest jurist of Islam. He adopted the middle way in giving a clear and balanced theory of law. He was a pious man who was a lover of legal learning.


Hanbali School of Islamic Jurisprudence was propounded by Imam Abu Abdullah Ahmed Ibn Mohammad Hanbal. Hanbali school was the fourth and the last school of Sunni sect. Mohammad Hanbal was born in Baghdad in 780 AD, Mohammad Hanbal was highly adherent to the traditions of the holy Prophet PBUH, so he was popularly known as “traditionalist” rather than a ‘jurist’.

He studied under several scholars of eminence, including Ash Shafi. Under this school there is no scope for private judgments and human reasoning. The result is that the doctrines of this school are rigid and uncompromising. Because of this, Ibn Hanbal and his followers were always regarded as reactionaries and were harassed by the authorities from time to time.

Musnad-ul-bnam Hanbal, is an important book on Hanbali law. It is a collection of about fifty thousand traditions by Ibn Hanbal. Other books by him are Kitab-ul-Mashaekh and Kitab-ul-Alal. At present very few Muslims are the followers of this school. Generally the Hanbalis are in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Salient Feature of Hanbali School:

i- Imam Hanbal was undoubtedly a more popular traditionalist than a Jurist. But he has made a remarkable contribution towards the development of Islamic Jurisprudence. The method of formulating legal principles was simple and it was based on the principles of the Holy Qur’an.

ii- Imam Hanbal made extensive use of the Hadith. He tried to follow as it is with very little reasoning. Moreover, he accepted even the weakest Hadith in its original form. Imam Hanbal adopted the interpretation of Hadith.

iii- Imam Hanbal accepted the Ijma as the source of Muslim law. But as Imam Hanbal was highly influenced by the use of Hadith, he made very less use of Ijma. According to Imam Hanbal’s opinion, Ijma is confined to the companions of the Prophet PBUH. However, he viewed that whenever a situation arises, necessary Ijma can be used.

iv- According to Imam Hanbal, use of Qiyas is merely a sheer necessity, and always tried to derive law from the traditional sources. Hanbalis based their Qiyas on Qur’an, Hadith, Ijma or Qiyas itself and they accept the validity of Qiyas generally in matters which are the rights of man and are determined by the application of our senses and reason.

v- Imam Hanbal also favours the law of juristic equity as the source of law. Juristic equality is also known as Istihsan under personal law.

vi- Imam Hanbal’s method of formulating legal doctrines was of Ashab-e-Hadith. So one can find numerous works on Hadith and very few on the principles of Fiqh. One of the greatest collections of traditions done by Imam Hanbal was known as ‘Musnad Ahmed’.

Thus Imam Hanbal was a profound traditionalist and a great jurist. He devoted most of his time to the study of Hadith and Fiqh. He was an independent character and a pious man. The renown of his learning, piety, justice and extreme love of tradition gathered a host of disciples and admirers around him.

References :

Syed Khalid Rashid, Muslim Law ( Eastern Book Company, Lucknow, 6th Edition, 2020 ).

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