The collection and codification of Islamic law has historically been one of the most important, and challenging, tasks that the Muslim community has undertaken in 1400 years of history. To be considered a faqih (an expert in Islamic law – fiqh), one must have mastery of the Quran, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, other sources of law, as well as other subjects such as grammar and history.
One of the giants of Islamic law was the 8th century scholar of Madinah, Malik ibn Anas. At a time when the Muslim community desperately needed the sciences of fiqh and hadith (sayings and doings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) to be organized, Imam Malik rose to the occasion. His legacy is manifest in his continued influence throughout the Muslim world, both through his own works and the works of those he helped guide on a path of scholarship and devotion to Islam.
Early Life and Education
Imam Malik was born in 711 in the city of Madinah, 79 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in that same city. His family was originally from Yemen, but his grandfather had moved to Madinah during the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab. Both his father and grandfather had studied religious sciences under the Companions of the Prophet who still lived in Madinah, and thus young Malik was raised in an environment that was based on Islamic scholarship, learning from his father and uncle.
Imam Malik’s uncle, Nafi’, was an eminent scholar in his own right, and narrated hadith from Aisha, Abu Hurairah, and Abdullah ibn Umar, all companions who are noted for their vast knowledge of hadith. Although the political center of the Muslim world shifted away from Madinah during the caliphate of Ali in the 650s, it remained the intellectual capital of Islam. In this capital of Islamic knowledge, Imam Malik mastered the sciences of hadith, tafsir (interpretation of the Quran), and fiqh.
The Scholar of Madinah
After an immense amount of study that extended into his 20s and 30s, Imam Malik became known as the most learned man in Madinah at his time. He became a teacher, attracting a huge number of students to lectures, which he held in the mosque of the Prophet ﷺ. He used to sit on the pulpit of the mosque with the Quran in one hand and a collection of hadith in the other and offer legal rulings and opinions based on those two sources.
Students flocked to his lectures from all corners of the Muslim world. Among his more notable students were Abu Yusuf, Muhammad al-Shaybani (they were Abu Hanifah’s two most important students as well), and Imam al-Shafi’i.
The most unique aspect of Imam Malik’s methodology in fiqh was his reliance on the practices of the people of Madinah as a source of law. In the study of fiqh, there are numerous sources that are used to derive laws. The first and second most important sources are always the Quran and Sunnah. After those two, however, the great scholars of fiqh differed on the next most important source of law. Imam Malik believed that the practices of the people of Madinah should be seen as an important source.
His reasoning for this was that Madinah at that time was not far removed from the Madinah of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. It had been spared the political and social upheaval that much of the rest of the Muslim world dealt with. And the people living in the city had been taught Islam by their ancestors who had been Companions of the Prophet ﷺ or students of the Companions. He thus reasoned that if all of the people of Madinah practiced a particular action and it did not contradict the Quran and Sunnah, then it can be taken as a source of law. He is unique among the four great imams of fiqh in this opinion.
In order to ease the study of fiqh and hadith, Imam Malik compiled a book known as the al-Muwatta. This was the first book that attempted to compile only sound and reliable sayings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ into one book. Imam Malik said that he showed his book to seventy scholars in Madinah, who all approved it, thus he gave it the name al-Muwatta, meaning “The Approved”.
Al-Muwatta was a landmark book. It helped establish the science of hadith, particularly the judging of chains of narrations for hadith. Imam Malik was so thorough in his selection of hadith that it has been placed on the same level (and sometimes above) the hadith compilations of Imams Bukhari and Muslim. Imam Shafi’i even stated that there is no book on earth, after the Quran, that is more authentic than the Muwatta.
Imam Malik’s work was so influential as a book of fiqh that the caliph of the time, Harun al-Rashid, demanded that it be mass-printed and made the official book of fiqh for the Abbasid Empire. Imam Malik, however, refused. He knew that no one interpretation of Islamic law was perfect and all-encompassing. As such, he refused to allow his fiqh to become official, even under threat of persecution and imprisonment.
Imam Malik’s Character
Besides being one of the greatest scholars of fiqh in history, Imam Malik was an incredibly humble and meticulous Muslim. Out of respect for the Prophet ﷺ and his words, he would refuse to narrate a hadith while walking. Instead, when asked about a hadith, he would stop, sit down, and give the hadith the attention it deserved, out of respect for Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He would also refuse to ride any animal in the city of Madinah, seeing it as unfathomable that he would ride on the same dust that Muhammad ﷺ’s feet walked on. This type of extra respect and meticulousness out of respect for Prophet Muhammad ﷺ certainly is not mandatory according to Islamic law, but simply a sign of the emphasis Imam Malik placed on the importance of Muhammad ﷺ.
Among Imam Malik’s sayings are:
“The Sunnah is the ark of Nuh. Whoever boards it is saved, and whoever remains away perishes.”
“Knowledge does not consist in narrating much. Knowledge is but a light which Allah places in the heart.”
“None renounces the world and guards himself without then ending up speaking wisdom.”
When Imam Malik embarked on the study of Islamic sciences with a teacher, his mother advised him to “learn from your teacher his manners before you learn from him his knowledge.”
Imam Malik’s ideology on fiqh developed into the Maliki madhab (school). As Imam Malik wished, it was not imposed on Muslims as the sole school of Islamic law. Instead, it complemented the other three schools that took precedence in the Sunni Muslim world – the Hanafi, Shafi’i, and Hanbali schools. The Maliki school became very popular in North and West Africa, as well as Muslim Spain. Today it remains the main madhab of North and West Africa.
Imam Malik died at the age of 85 in the year 795. He was buried in the Baqee’ Cemetary in Madinah.
Haddad, Gibril. The Four Imams and their Schools. Muslim Academic Trust, Print.
Khan, Muhammad. The Muslim 100. Leicestershire, United Kingdom: Kube Publishing Ltd, 2008. Print.