The “Old” and “New” Schools of Imam al-Shafi’i

Answered according to Shafi'i Fiqh by

Answered by Shaykh Zacharia al Khatib

Question: I have a short question about Imam Shafi’i:

I read multiple times about the “old” and the “new” Imam Shafi’i according to his traveling and his works, especially it’s influence on “Kitab al Umm”.

Maybe you can tell me what the special characteristics were from the “old” and the “new” Imam Shafi’i?

Answer: In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate

The Development of the Legal Schools

Allah has blessed us with foundational texts that do not change; however, we should recognize that the legal corpus that has been derived from those source texts develops according to numerous factors. Legal schools, too, developed, as the mujtahid Imams grew in knowledge and exposure to new situations; hence, Imam Malik revised the Muwatta numerous times; Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal may have had numerous reported opinions on the same issue; and Imam al-Shafi’i famously has an “old” and a “new” school.

The Meaning of “Old School” and “New School”

In brief, the “Old School” (al-Madhab al-Qadỉ̉m) are the collection of legal opinions narrated from Imam al-Shafi’i when he went to Iraq at the age of forty-five. His main students, and the narrators of this school, were Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Hasan al-Za’faranỉ, Abu Thawr al-Kalbi, and Abu Ali al-Karabeesi.

The “New School” refers to the revised legal opinions that Imam Al-Shafi’i dictated after his migration to Egypt in 199AH, and where he eventually passed away in 205AH, may Allah have mercy upon him. His main students were al-Buwayti, al-Muzani, and al-Rabi’ al-Muradi.

The Basis of the Differences Between the Old and New Schools

There are numerous matters in which the New School differs from the Old School, based on a revision of the legal principles by which rulings were issued and new information that became available to the Imam. Imam al-Shafi’i famously said that “I do not permit anyone to narrate my old opinions from me” and “The old opinions of my school are not permitted (to be acted upon).”

Nonetheless, the mujtahid scholars of the madhhab determined that in certain cases the Imam’s opinions from the Old School are more in accordance with his usul than the opinions of the New School, and so fatwa in the Shafi’i madhhab rests upon these older opinions.

Also, there have been instances in which an opinion thought to be only of the Old School was, upon revision by later scholars, found to have in fact given in the New School, as well. To give a couple of examples in which Old School opinions were given precedence over New School ones: touching a mahram does not break one’s wudu’; and that the time for Mughrib extends until the disappearance of the red light from the sky.

The Authority of the Old School vs. The New School

To conclude, one should keep in mind the words of the great scholar Ahmad al-Ahdal, who said in his book “Sullam al-Muta’llim al-Muhtaj ‘ila Rumuz al-Minhaj” that:

“The Old School is not a madhab that can be attributed to Imam al-Shafi’i, because a follower (muqallid) in relation to the Imam of his school (mujtahid) is like the mujtahid himself in relation to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, insofar as when a new rule was given by the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, which replaced an older one by consensus, it became obligatory that the mujtahid only looks at the newer ruling and does not refer to the older one in making legal decisions at all.

As for the fact that some of the positions of fatwa are based on the Imam’s “Old School” positions, the reason for this is because a number of the scholars of the school reviewed these opinions and found them to be more apparent in their legal evidence than the newer positions, and so they themselves established that legal rulings were to be given on these older opinions without attributing such to Imam al-Shafi’i.”

And Allah knows best.

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