4 Major Schools of Islamic Law: A Comprehensive Guide

Learn about the four major schools of Islamic law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Understand their unique characteristics and approaches to Sharia law.

Major Schools of Islamic Law

Islamic law, also known as Sharia, is derived from the Quran and the Hadith (sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad). Over time, various schools of Islamic jurisprudence have developed, each with its own interpretations and applications of Sharia. The major schools are:

  1. Hanafi: Founded by Imam Abu Hanifa (699–767 CE), this school is known for its use of reason and opinion in the absence of clear texts. It is the most widespread school, particularly in South Asia, Turkey, the Balkans, and parts of the Arab world.
  2. Maliki: Established by Imam Malik ibn Anas (711–795 CE), this school places a strong emphasis on the practices of the people of Medina as a source of Islamic law, considering them to be reflective of the Sunnah. It is predominant in North and West Africa.
  3. Shafi’i: Founded by Imam al-Shafi’i (767–820 CE), this school is known for its systematic methodology in jurisprudence and strong reliance on the Quran and Hadith, giving equal weight to consensus (ijma) and analogical reasoning (qiyas). It is prevalent in East Africa, Yemen, Indonesia, and parts of Southeast Asia.
  4. Hanbali: Initiated by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855 CE), this school is characterized by a conservative approach that strictly adheres to the texts of the Quran and Hadith, with minimal use of personal opinion. It is the least widespread of the four schools, primarily followed in Saudi Arabia and parts of the Persian Gulf.

Aside from these four Sunni schools, there are also schools within Shia Islam:

  1. Ja’fari (Twelver Shia): Named after Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (702–765 CE), this school is followed by the majority of Shia Muslims. It differs from Sunni schools in several jurisprudential methodologies and practices.
  2. Zaidi: Predominantly followed in Yemen, this school is named after Zayd ibn Ali. It is closer to the Hanafi and Shafi’i Sunni schools in jurisprudence.
  3. Ismaili: This school has its own unique jurisprudence, followed by Ismaili Shia Muslims, and it differs significantly from both Sunni and other Shia schools.

Each school has developed its own detailed jurisprudence and legal methodology, reflecting the diverse contexts and cultures in which Islam has been practiced. These differences, however, are generally considered to be variations in interpretation rather than fundamental doctrinal divisions.


In conclusion, the four major schools of Islamic law each have their unique characteristics and approaches to interpreting and applying Sharia law. The Hanafi school is known for its flexibility and adaptability, while the Maliki school places a strong emphasis on local practices and customs. The Shafi’i school relies on a systematic approach and consensus among scholars, while the Hanbali school adheres strictly to the literal interpretation of the Quran and Hadith. Understanding these different schools of thought is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of Islamic law and its application in different contexts

by Abdullah Sam
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