Great Mosque of Kufa in 1915CE

It is an all too common misperception that the Ḥanafī madhhāb (school of legal thought) was forged at a time and locality where hadiths were not widely available. Likely due to this misperception, the Ḥanafī madhhāb is often singled out as the only representative among the Sunni schools today of an earlier, and controversial, school known as Ahl al-Raʽy (proponents of considered legal opinion); so named by their detractors the Ahl al-Ḥadīth (proponents of tradition). Kūfa, the city of Hanafism’s birth, is truly the key to understanding these misperceptions. Allegations made against the city have contributed much to the controversy surrounding Ḥanafi thought to this day.

Since many books and articles already exist that examine the unique legal methodology (uṣūl al-fiqh) of Hanafism, as well as other Sunni schools of law (madhāhib); and many more exist which illustrate the life of Abū Ḥanīfa, I will respond to these misperceptions by focusing upon that which is less well-known. In the following series of posts I plan to briefly survey the vast diversity of culture and thought that flooded the city from which the most widely-practiced Sunni madhhāb would spring: Kūfa.

The Responsibility of a Sacred Inheritance

After the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ passed away (11AH/632CE), he left a treasure of knowledge to be inherited by his Companions[1]. This sacred inheritance came with a responsibility to care for and distribute this inheritance to all who sought it from them. So, pious believers flocked to the Companions to study and seek answers to their many questions.

There was nobody more qualified to speak on behalf of the religion and the Sacred Law (Shari’ah) than the direct students of the Prophet ﷺ. To support their rulings, besides referencing the Qur’an, they often cited a saying or action of the Prophet (i.e. hadith) that they had witnessed, or had learned from another Companion. Other times if the Qur’an was unclear, or they were not aware of any hadith on a new issue (after seeking one), they offered their opinion (raʽy) based upon their deep understanding (fiqh) of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah[2]. As the Companions spread out- especially after the reign of ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭab (reigned 13-24AH/634-644CE) – they brought with them their personal experiences and memories of the Prophet’s life as well as their own legal aptitudes.

Though Medina continued to house many of the most important companions, many others migrated to further spread the teachings of the Prophet and accept administrative positions in the newly expanding empire. Of the 418 companions and their children reported to have transmitted hadiths, 188 migrated from their homes in Medina and Mecca to places in Syria, Egypt, Khurāsān and Iraq.[3] The most famous, and infamous, of the places where they traveled to was Kūfa; a city not only identified with heretical sects, but also controversial legal methodologies, and the later birthplace of the Ḥanafī madhhāb.

Kūfa is Born

When a student of history, or Islamic legal thought, studies the early history of Kūfa they may wonder: “How did this troublesome town ever give birth to the most widely practiced madhhāb? Why was it not Mecca, or Medina? Aren’t these the most sacred places in Islam?”

Kūfa was not well-known for its piety, or for the sacredness of its land. Rather, the people of Kūfa were well-known for breaking up into sects, religious disagreements and political revolts. Although Ḥanafī thought eventually would consolidate much of the knowledge of Kūfa, Basra and the two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina, its adoption by the majority of Muslims living today may seem surprising due to its foreign and controversial origins.

In his al-Khayrat al-Hisan, the scholar Ibn Hajar al-Haytami al-Makki (d. 979AH/1566CE) spoke of the controversy surrounding Abū Ḥanīfa, stating: “The renown of a man in the past is indicated by the disagreement of people regarding him.”[4] If the same could be spoken of a city, Kūfa would be among the most “renowned”. Kūfa was one of two garrison cities, along with Basra, which were originally founded as permanent military establishments. From these centers, the rapidly growing Islamic empire orchestrated its expansion into Persian territory, and provided for its newly acquired land a new political administration. [5] After being founded in 17AH/ 638CE by Saʽd b. Abī Waqās[6], the camps became home to many soldiers, their families and prominent Companions of the Prophet ﷺ. Muslim governors across the northern portion of the empire were also requested by the Caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭab to settle in Kūfa, and military camps like it, rather than settling in the newly conquered cities.

From its inception Kūfa was destined to be a very diverse city. Even its Arab population consisted of those who came from the Ḥijāz, Yemen and Hadramout; all assembled first in Medina at ‘Umar’s insistence and then sent to Iraq.[7] They were also joined by Arabs from the bordering Iraqi providences that embraced Islam at the hands of the Companions and joined the growing Islamic army.[8] As these military camps grew into bustling cities, aided by the spoils of war, they began to house prior subjects of the Sassanid Empire, a number of which already spoke Arabic, and many new Persian clients.[9] This was the first time for the Arabs to have united in such an urban concentration,[10] and they were nestled beside a growing Persian population.[11]

Due to the importance of its location, Kūfa became the center of operations for the commander-in-chief of the Muslim army, the deputy to the caliph, and the capital of Iraq.[12] During ʽAli b. Abī Ṭalib’s reign (35-40AH/656-661CE) it also became the seat of the caliph and capital of the newly emerging Islam empire.


[1] In a beautiful and famous hadith of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ he is reported to have said, “The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave neither dinar nor dirham, leaving only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion.” It was recorded by Abū Da’ūd, al-Tirmidhī, and Ibn Hibbān. Part of the narration is also recorded by al-Bukhāri.

[2] The Sunnah is the combined knowledge of all known sayings and living practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The companions had the distinct honor of interacting and learning from the Prophet first hand, thus their understanding of the Sunnah was far greater than any generation thereafter would, and will, ever achieve. Each successive generation after them had to rely upon the acquisition of transmitted knowledge, while they had firsthand experience of the Prophet and the revelation of the Qur’an.

[3] Wael B. Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005), 72.

[4] Muhammad Abū Zahrah, The Four Imams: the Lives and Teaching of Their Founders (London: Dar Al-Taqwa, 2001), 118.

[5] S. F. A. Mahmud, A Short History of Islam (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1988), 34.

[6] Hichem Djait, “Al-Kūfa.” The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Ed. C. E. Bodsworth, E. Donzel, and G. Lecomte. Vol. 3. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 345.

[7] Akbar Shāh Khān Najībābādī, The History of Islam. Ed. Ṣafī Al-Raḥmān. Mubārakfūrī, Abdul Rahman. Abdullah, and Muhammad Tahir Salafi. Vol. 2. (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2000), 146-147.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Djait, 347.

[11] Najībābādī, 146-147.

[12] Ibid.

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