Islam - Lesson 15

Schools of Law

Different groups within the Sunni and Shia traditions have various perspectives on how the teachings in the Qur'an and Hadith should be interpreted and applied.

Lesson 15
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Schools of Law

Schools of Law in Sunni and Shia Islam


I. Great Sufi Passages: Muhyi (p. 123, 133), Abdallah al-Ansari (p. 127f)


II. Recap of Four Schools of Law in Sunni Tradition

A. Hanifi

1. Largest School

2. Liberal

3. Emphasis on Qiya

4. Turkey / Asia

B. Shafites

1. Emphasis on consensus

2. Lower Egypt, portions of Arabia,

3. East Africa, Indonesia, Philippines

C. Malakites

1. Emphasis on Hadith

2. North and West Africa, Upper Egypt, Sudan

D. Hanbalites

1. Smallest school

2. Conservative

3. Literal interpretation of Qur'an - Wahabbis

4. Southern Arabia, Qatar


III. Schools in Shia Tradition

A. Imamites

1. Largest school of Shia

2. Recognize twelve Imams

3. Also known as “twelvers”

4. Last imam was Muhamad al-Mahdi in 880 A.D.

5. Iran

B. Ismailis

1. Smallest sect of Shia

2. Believe the seventh Imam was Ismail (d. 760)

3. Mystical practices / Ismail veneration

C. Zaydis

1. Sect named after fourth Imam, Zayd

2. Refuse to accept Muta marriages (Sunni also rejects)

3. Better relationship with Sunni than other Shia groups

D. Alawites

1. Emphasis on Ali

2. Liberal social views

3. Strong emphasis on final mahdi

  • In this preview video, Dr. Tim Tennent delves into the teachings of Islam and their significance in understanding the unique perspectives of Muslims and Christianity. The teachings of Islam are based on the Qur'an, which forms the foundation of their beliefs. Through this video, you will gain a better understanding of the key differences between the teachings of Islam and Christianity, and how they shape the worldview of Muslims.

  • Islam is based on teachings in the Qur'an. Knowing the teachings of Islam helps us to understand the uniqueness of the teachings of Christianity and the perspective of Muslims.

  • Arabia in the 6th century was a land where traders and raiders lived. Mecca was a city in which many religions were practiced.

  • In his early life, Muhammad was influenced by Judaism, Christianity and the Hanifs.

  • As Muhammad began telling others about his revelations, he was forced to flee Mecca and went to Medina. After he consolidated his power and influence he returned to Mecca.

  • The text of the Qur'an was revealed directly to Muhammad.

  • The Qur'an has passages that teach about both practical and spiritual aspects of daily life. The world was created in six days and there will be a culmination of events at the end of the age.

  • The first two pillars of the Muslim faith are the confession of faith (Shahadah), and ritual prayer (Salat).

  • Almsgiving (Zakat) and fasting (Sawm) are the third and fourth pillars of the Islamic faith.

  • Pilgrimage (Hajj) is the fifth pillar of Islam.

  • Da'wah and jihad are two methods that the Qur'an describes for Muslims to approach infidels.

  • After Muhammad's death in 632 AD, he was succeeded by the four "rightly guided caliphs."

  • The split between the Sunni and Shi'a groups began when there was a disagreement over who should succeed Muhammad after he died. Sufi Islam is the mystical expression of Islam and could be compared to the monastic movement in Christianity.

  • Many Muslims consider the Hadith an important source of information for guidance in how to live their lives.

  • Sharia is Islamic religious law which regulates both public and private aspects of life.

  • Different groups within the Sunni and Shia traditions have various perspectives on how the teachings in the Qur'an and Hadith should be interpreted and applied.

  • Sufi Muslims are more contemplative, mystical, individualistic, syncretistic, and non-legalistic than someone who is an orthodox Muslim.

  • Folk Islam is a popular expression of Islam which has synthesized indigenous beliefs and customs into the religion. Folk Islam is a popular expression of Islam which has synthesized indigenous beliefs and customs into the religion. Two expressions of this in Nigeria are the Hausa and Tiv.

  • Folk Islam is a popular expression of Islam which has synthesized indigenous beliefs and customs into the religion. Two expressions of this in Nigeria are the Yoruba and Maguzawa.

  • The Qur'an contains a description of Jesus' life and ministry.

  • The description in the Qur'an of Jesus' death, resurrection and deity are different than that of the Bible.

  • Islam does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • Islam has clear teachings in cultural areas such as the significance of beards, acceptable types of clothing, behavior and acceptable clothing for females, and food and dietary restrictions.

  • In order to make it easier for Muslims to understand and accept the message of the gospel, Christians can approach them with the assumption that they probably misunderstand the Gospel, that the number one stumbling block for Muslims is Christianity, and that the most effective approach is Jesus plus nothing.

  • Comparison of teachings of Christianity and Islam.

In this course, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of Islam, its origins, and its core beliefs and practices. You'll explore the Five Pillars of Islam, the Qur'an, and the Hadith, and learn about the major Islamic sects, including Sunni, Shi'a, and Sufism. The class will also discuss Islam's relationship with Christianity and Judaism, highlighting the importance of interfaith dialogue. Finally, you'll delve into contemporary issues in Islam, such as the role of women, Islamic law and human rights, and the interaction between Islam and politics.


Different groups within the Sunni and Shia traditions have various perspectives on how the teachings in the Qur’an and Hadith should be interpreted and applied.

I. Great Sufi Passages: Muhyi, (p. 123, 133), Abdallah al-Ansari (p.127f)

Now you have lecture 10 before you. Today we are going to begin to get into the Shia tradition as well as the Sufi tradition. Just to refresh your memory on a few of the passages in the textbook, this Muhyi al-Din al-Maghribi, Muhyi, is a very well-known Sufi scholar. We will look at him, he is one of the two or three major scholars who have mainstreamed Sufism. Listen to what it says here, “Besides those who claim that man may become God, there are those who claim that God is everything. Since there is no God but God, all that exists must share in his essence.” What does this sound like? It sounds like a form of monism; you could call it pantheism or panentheism right out of Hindu philosophy. There is a tremendous parallel between Hindu and Islamic philosophy in the middle ages. We don’t have time in this lecture, unfortunately, to develop this point historically because we already spend so much time on theology as has been pointed out. We need to make sure we do a lot more with the practical folk Islam.

If this was just a class on Islamic thought, this is a whole other area of development because the Muslim philosophers, particularly Shankara and Ramanuja, the two great luminaries of Hindu philosophy, are like the Plato and Aristotle of Hindu thought. They are writing at a time that is contemporary with the emergence of Islam and Islamic philosophers. In particular, Ramanuja writes at the same time roughly as Muhyi and other Muslim philosophers, so there is a transference of monistic ideas between East and West at this point, and it comes into Islam.

Listen to this passage: (Page 124) “My heart has become capable of every form. It is a pasture of gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, and a temple for idols” - this is a Muslim saying this - “and the pilgrim’s Ka’aba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an. I saw the religion of love, whatever way love camels take. That is my religion and my faith.” You should say, “Wow!”

The idea of someone’s heart as a temple for idols is not something that you would expect to find in Muslim thought. But this comes out and it sounds a lot, again, like the devotional boxy movements of South India, very similar in language and thought. You will notice also on page 127, “Poverty is my pride.” That is the Sufi Hadith. Page 128: This is such an important theme in Sufism: “Know that God has built an outward Ka’aba out of mud and stone and fashioned an inward Ka’aba of heart and soul alone. The outward Ka’aba Abraham did build. The inward Ka’aba was as the Lord Almighty willed.” That is quite remarkable and it is even done poetically, so it fits well in English. That is the kind of stuff that you find emerging in the Sufi theology and the Sufi movement. We will examine that later.

II. Recap of Four Schools of Law in the Sunni Tradition

First, I want to briefly recap to clarify the four schools of law in the Sunni tradition. I mentioned that the majority of Muslims, of course, call themselves Sunna or Sunni Muslims and they belong to one of these four orthodox judicial schools of law: The Hannifi, Shafite, Malikite, Hanbalite.

A. Hannifi: Largest school; liberal; emphasis on Qiya; Turkey/Asia.
B. Shafites: Emphasis on consensus; lower Egypt, portions of Arabia; East Africa, Indonesia, Philippines.
C. Malakites: Emphasis on Hadith; North and West Africa, upper Egypt, Sudan.
D. Hanbalites: Smallest school; conservative; literal interpretation of the Qur’an – Wahhabis; southern Arabia, Qatar.

A person can pass from one school of law into the other without passing out of orthodoxy. It is not considered heretical to pass between the four schools of law. We have explored the unity of Islam as the Sunna was torn asunder by Muhyi’s desire to wrest the caliphate from Ali, Muhammed’s son-in-law, who was of course the fourth and last rightly guided caliph. Ali won the Battle of Siffin in 657, but then he lost the point of conflict because of Muhyi’s waving the pages of the Qur’an on the swords and all of that which we looked at. The result was the submission to arbitration which created the Shia tradition, which we began to examine last time.

The Shia tradition arose mostly among urban Arabs influenced by Persian ideas, which is why today most Persian Muslims are Shiites, which is why Shiism is the state religion of Iran. They began to attach great admiration and adulation to Ali and of course insisted, as you know, that only his descendants were the legitimate caliphs.

We have already taken a lot of time to discuss the different ways the revelation developed between the way Sharia law emerges in the Sunni and Shia traditions. We talked about how in the Sunni tradition you have the Qur’an, then you have the Hadith and they added to that the third component, the Ijtihad, personal effort. This was, again, where a caliph or one of the regarded figures would issue a ruling, they would seek to get union, which is the whole idea of the gate of Ijtihad being closed or open.

In the Shia tradition, of course, we said they agree on the Qur’an and the Hadith, but they disagree on the third component, which for Shia is the Imam. The idea about the Imam, which basically boils down to the descendants of Ali or Ali’s children, Ali’s sons, forms the real basis for the major schools of tradition, or schools of law, within the Shia tradition. So we have to make sure we don’t overstate our case on what we are talking about; but essentially we’re arguing that in the Shia tradition you still have the Qur’an. Don’t forget, that basic component is common to Muslims all over.

You have the Hadith, which granted they have their own special Hadith collection, which we looked at. They have their collections which are different from the Sunni collection. But this third category is the place where there is major disagreement among the Sunnis. The three of these together form Sharia. Therefore, this is a big factor influencing the legal system in Shia areas.

III. Schools in the Shia Tradition

I want to briefly highlight the four major schools in the Shia tradition and talk about each of them one-by-one so we will have a little bit of a feel for how it comes out with the views of the Imam.

A. Imamites

The first are known as the “Imamites,” more popularly known as the “Twelvers.” This is based on their particular views regarding the line from Hussein. Remember that Ali had children, one of whom was Hussein, who was martyred; and to this day there are passion plays around the martyrdom of Hussein. From Hussein there are nine of the Imams that come directly from Hussein. There are three others that come from other relations to Ali. The result is that there are 12 Imams. The twelfth, or last one, is called Muhammad al Mahdi, which is interesting if you already know that expression. Obviously Muhammad becomes a very popular name among Muslims. Al Mahdi, this is a Messianic term. It is like Muhammed the Messiah, Muhammed the Savior, Mahdi.

This particular figure disappears into a cave and he is never seen again. Therefore they believe that the disappearance of Muhammad al-Mahdi in the year 878 in the cave of the Great Mosque at Samarra without leaving an heir means that the Imamites have completely come to an end. They do not believe that there can be a continuation of the Imamites again because of pressure from the Sunni. They tied the Imamites into a direct descendant of Ali. This is the way the caliph was often viewed by the early sectarians.

The result is, when al-Mahdi disappeared into the cave, they believe that he would not re-emerge from this cave until the end of time, when he would re-
emerge as a Mahdi figure. So many of them are looking forward to the re-emergence of al-Mahdi at the end of time. That would be the Twelvers’ position. When he returns, he will usher in a golden era of Islam prior to the end of the age.

Ayatollah Khomeini, with whom everyone is familiar, is a very famous Twelver. He was a part of this sect of Islam and Shiism called the Twelvers. This means that there were some people who believed that he, himself, was a manifestation of the final Mahdi. When the Iranian Revolution occurred in the 1970s, he became an international figure of importance. This is the beginning of the “death to America” mantra which has become so significant in Muslim circles since that time. They actually made a cassette. A cassette to you seems like ancient history, but in the early 1970s that was a big deal. This was in the days when they had eight-tracks and cassette tapes. The cassette was really a nice innovation. That really hit the Muslim world pretty hard in the 1970s and they taped these “death to America” chants on cassette tapes and duplicated them and sent them to mosques all over Iran. At the end of the call to prayer, they would launch into a number of anti-American chants, which helped fuel the Islamic Revolution there. Early on they deposed the Shah of Iran and that is when the rightwing Muslims came to power there. That significantly has not changed. Iran has become more liberal than it was in the 1970s. This is the only Muslim country to go that direction. But certainly, it was very, very important. Many believed that he was this last Imam, but of course, he was never given that title. He had the title “Ayatollah” which is the highest title besides the Imam.

This is the largest of all of the Shia sects; therefore it is important in that sense.

The main points are:

1. Largest school of Shia.
2. Recognize twelve Imams.
3. Also known as “Twelvers.”
4. Last Imam was Muhammad al-Mahdi .
5. Mainly in Iran.

B. Ismailis

The second major school are the Ismailis, which is a smaller sect of Shia. They disagree regarding who was the seventh Imam. They honor the succession down to the sixth Imam exactly the way the Twelvers do. The sixth Imam is the one named Jafar al-Sadiq. That is the sixth Imam. Then they regard his eldest son, Ismail, as the seventh. That is why they are called the Ismailis, because of the focus on Ismail as the seventh Imam. He died in the year 760.

One of the reasons why this is a smaller sect is, they have almost deified Ismail in their theology and their doctrinal positions. The Imamites reject him as an evil person. But in fact, the Ismailites are known for their mystical practices, esoteric practices, secret practices, which in many ways will go beyond our class here at this point. They are a very, very powerful group and they have all kinds of stories about miracles that Ismail did and accomplished, miraculous things that he did in terms of milking cows and all kinds of things that he did that were considered to be miraculous. That has gone down into the Ismaili generation theology and is a very, very important part of the Shia tradition.

C. Zaydis

The Zaydis, the third major sect of Islam is named after the fourth Imam, Zayd, going back to this point in the chain. Zayd, by the way, is the grandson of Hussein. They believe that after Zayd, innovations were going to take place in the Muslim movement which they found unacceptable. This is probably something you should note, the Zaydis are the closest of the Shia sect to Sunni Islam. There are a lot of ways in which the Sunnis and the Zaydis actually come together and often will take sides together against the Shia, as a whole.

For example, they refuse to accept Muta marriages. Muta marriage was a provision the Shiites made that when you go on pilgrimage, you could enter into a temporary marriage arrangement while you are on pilgrimage. This is a form of legalized prostitution basically. Because a man was allowed five wives, you were on pilgrimage, you only had three or four wives at home, you could marry your fifth wife on pilgrimage. You could have relations with the wife during the time you were on pilgrimage. At the end of the ten or twelve days of pilgrimage, you would be given a divorce and you would go home. Let me be very clear: The Sunni Muslims reject this as a perversion. Shia generally accepts this, but the Zaydis denounce this. This does happen now among the Shias. I think I mentioned before, in Iran – which of course is run mainly by Twelvers – they have extended this principle to include not only when you are on pilgrimage; but they are trying to find a way to curb the growth of premarital sexual activity among young Muslim men and women, so they have included this Muta marriage as a possibility, where you could actually go to the cleric and say, “I’m dating so-and-so, would you enter us into a temporary marriage while we are dating?” They would enter into a Muta marriage and they could therefore have sexual intercourse during the time of their dating. This is definitely a perversion of Islam. This is something that was recently in the newspapers, as an example. It is not from the Muslim ancient world; it is something that is happening today. But the Sunni denounce it. The Zaydis denounce it.

The whole idea of Muta marriage is based on Surah 4 ayah 28. I will quote it: “Allah seeks to forgive you, but those who follow their own appetites wish to see you far astray. Allah would lighten your burdens, for man was created weak.” It is on that basis that they accept this because they believe that men were not able to go on a long pilgrimage away from their wives without entering into sexual intercourse.

D. Alawites

The last and final ones are the Alawites. In a nutshell, they have great emphasis on Ali, much more so than the descendants of Hussein. They have much more liberal social views. This, for example, is one particular Muslim sect that does permit the imbibing of alcohol. Strong emphasis on the final Mahdi.

So you can see that even in the Shia tradition, we have distinct perspectives which have formed the Sharia law that historically are rooted in the teachings of particular imams. We are mainly looking at the fourth imam, the seventh imam and the twelfth imam. If you count Ali as the first, that would be true for all of these sects, if you count the Alawites, which emphasize Ali. All of these sects are based on a particular teaching or emphasis on a particular imam.

This shows you how important the Imamite doctrine is in the Shia tradition. We need to realize that Shiaism in many ways, especially the Ismailis, the Seveners, introduced new possibilities in how Islam can be interpreted. The result was that a lot of innovation occurred in how the Qur’an is interpreted.