“This particular knowledge is a matter of religion. Be careful in choosing whom to learn from. I have met more than 70 people who often quoted the Prophet’s statements accurately close to those pillars of his mosque. You could trust any one of them with the state treasury and you would be sure that he would discharge his trust most meticulously. But I did not take anything from them because they were not of the scholarly type.”

These were the words of a scholar distinguished by his profound insight which enabled him to recognise reliable scholars and the breadth of their knowledge. That was Imam Malik.

Malik ibn Anas Al-Assbahi, the founder of the Maliki school of thought, was born in Madinah in 93 A.H. corresponding to 712 AD. His parents were Arabs of Yemeni descent. His tribe, Assbah, still lives in Yemen. His grandfather, who bore the same name, Malik, arrived in Madinah to complain to the Caliph against a governor, but decided to settle in Madinah, where he met a number of the Prophet’s companions, and learnt from those of them who were known for their scholarly standing, such as Umar ibn Al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Aisha, Talhah and many others. Thus, he became well known as a scholar. He taught his children and encouraged them to pursue Islamic knowledge. This provided the young grandson, Malik, with the best platform to pursue his natural inclination of study. He never sought to learn any trade. In fact, his brother An-Nadhr ibn Anas was well known in scholarly circles, particularly those devoted to hadith. As Malik started frequenting the same circles, he was known as An-Nadhr’s brother, but when he became better known for his own scholarly gifts, the elder of the two became known as Malik’s brother.

Malik first sought to memorise the Quran, which he soon did. He then suggested to his family that he should attend scholars’ circles to write down the hadith and Fiqh. They welcomed that, particularly his mother, who took extra care of his appearance, helping him to dress in his best attire, and directing him to whom he should go and what he should learn. She encouraged him to attend the circle of Rabi’ah ibn Abdurrahman who was renowned for exercising scholarly discretion. Malik learnt from him this highly commendable approach, particularly because it was restrained with commitment to hadith and the Quran.

Malik provided a great example of a student eager to improve his knowledge and achieve a standard of excellence in his scholarship. He would go to Nafi’, one of his teachers, waiting for him until he came out of his home, in very hot temperature, having no shade. When he came out, Malik would follow him, without accosting him at first, until he had walked some distance. He would then greet him and keep quiet. When he approached his destination, he would ask him one or two questions, learn the answers and memorise them.

Malik was very selective in his choice of teachers. He was keen to study under Az-Zuhri, the first specialised scholar of hadith who had studied under Saeed ibn Al-Musayyib and other celebrated scholars of the Tabi’een generation that succeeded the Prophet’s companions. Malik reports that on one Eid day he thought that Az-Zuhri would be free, so he went to his home and waited at his door. He heard him asking his maid to find out who was at the door. When she told him that it was young Malik, he told her to let him in. He asked him: “I see that you have not gone home yet… Would you like to have something to eat?” Malik said: “No. I only would like you to teach me some hadiths.” Az-Zuhri told him to take out his sheets and dictated to him 40 hadiths. Malik requested more, but the teacher said: “That should be enough for you. If you learn these well, you are a great learner.”

Rabi’ah ibn Abdurrahman was one of Malik’s teachers, as we have already mentioned. He was nicknamed Rabi’ah Ar-Rai, which means ‘the-point-of-view’. This is a reference to the fact that he exercised scholarly discretion to a much greater extent than many scholars in Madinah would have liked. In Islamic scholarship there have always been two trends. The first limits all effort to learning the texts of the Quran and hadith, understanding their meanings and stopping at that. The other trend tries to go deeper into the texts to understand their wider applicability and to reconcile what may appear to be a conflict between two texts. In our articles on Imam Abu Haneefah, we mentioned that he was the best known figure of the latter trend. That is because he and his school resort to analogy in arriving at rulings for questions that are not specifically mentioned in any text. The process involves using a text that concerns one question in order to arrive at a ruling for another question, because the two have the same factor constituting the basis of that ruling. This process was widely used in Iraq and scholars indulged in finding rulings for hypothetical questions. In Madinah the use of discretion was much more limited and concentrated on reconciliation of texts. Yet the basis of intellectual and scholarly discretion was clearly in place there.

Malik’s residence in Madinah afforded him the best possible grounding in Islamic scholarship, because Madinah was full of scholars. Moreover, it was the place of residence of the Prophet and his companions. It was also frequented by Muslims from all over the world who visited the Prophet’s mosque when they travelled to offer the pilgrimage to Makkah. By Malik’s time, there were a number of highly distinguished scholars who either learnt directly from the Prophet’s companions or from their successors. Thus, Malik received knowledge that was both authentic and pure. To the two of his teachers we have already mentioned we may add the names of Abdurrahman ibn Hurmuz, Abu Az-Zinad, Yahya ibn Said Al-Ansari and Ja’afar As-Sadiq.

What is important to realise is that Malik acquired broad knowledge through his teachers. This knowledge was not limited to learning the Quran and the hadith, the rulings passed by the Prophet’s companions and their successors. It also involved studying the thinking and the beliefs of the different schools and factions that started and flourished in different areas of the Muslim land at the time. It is well known that after the events that led to the assassination of both the third and fourth Caliphs, Uthman and Ali, there emerged different factions, such as the Shia and Khawarij. The first were those who claimed that Ali was the person who should have become the ruler of the Islamic state after the Prophet, and the latter were those who rebelled against him. In both groups there were different factions and different trends of moderation and extremism. Malik learnt all their thoughts and beliefs, as well as their views in understanding the Quran and the Islamic faith, through his teacher Ibn Hurmuz. However, he did not pass that information to the majority of his students, because he felt that this aspect of knowledge should be given only to those who are particularly interested in it and those who can make good use of it to maintain the purity of Islamic beliefs.

When Malik was sure of having attained a standard that qualified him to teach, he consulted people of good standing in scholarship and society in Madinah about starting a teaching circle. He says: “I did not sit to teach until I have obtained agreement of 70 scholars that I am fit to do so.” But even then, he did not sit to teach until he fell into disagreement with his teacher Rabi’ah. Yet he continued to praise Rabi’ah long after his death, stating that “he was a man of much goodness, sound mind, clear virtues, profound understanding of Islam, true love and friendship to all people, particularly to his students. May God bless his soul, forgive him and reward him far better than his good deeds merit.” Rabi’ah died when Malik was 43, which suggests that the scholarly disagreement between them occurred when Malik was a well established scholar.

When he started his teaching circle, Malik sat where Umar ibn Al-Khattab used to sit in the Prophet’s mosque, and he lived in the house that belonged to Abdullah ibn Massoud. Thus, he surrounded himself with the atmosphere of the Prophet’s companions in his teaching and living quarters. However, he later moved his circle to his home because he suffered from urinary incontinence. He did not mention his illness until just before his death. When he was asked about his absence from the mosque, he would say: “Not every one is able to publicise his excuses.”

His circle was of two types: one for hadith and the other for Fiqh and rulings to questions posed. The latter he would do in whatever he was wearing, but when he taught the hadith, he would appear in his best attire, wearing perfume and taking a most serious and devoted attitude. He then divided his days between the two circles. Private questions would be put to him and he would write the answer down for the person concerned. His approach was the same even when the question was raised by the Governor of Madinah. Moreover, he would not give an answer to any hypothetical question. If a problematic question was put to him, he would ask whether it had taken place. If it had not, he would not consider it, even though it might have been probable. Moreover, he exercised extreme caution in answering questions. He would not venture to give an answer unless he was certain of it. Should he feel unsure of his answer, he would not give it. He would tell the questioner that he did not know the answer.

It is reported that someone put to him a question and said: “I have been sent to you with this question from my hometown in Morocco, undertaking a journey of 6 months to reach here.” Malik listened to the problem and reflected on it before saying to the man: “Tell the person who sent you that I have no knowledge of this matter.” The man asked: “Who knows it, then?” Malik said: “A person to whom God has given knowledge of it.” Another report speaks of another man from Morocco putting a question to him, and he said: “I do not know. We have not been exposed to a problem like this in our hometown. Nor have we heard any of our teachers speaking about it. If you come back tomorrow, I may have something for you.” When the man came the following day, Malik told him that he reflected over the matter but he could not arrive at an answer. He did not know it. The man said: “People back home say that there is no one on the face of the earth who is a better scholar than you.” Malik said: “I do not have the competence to answer it.” This humility tells us something about Malik, the sort of scholarly atmosphere that prevailed in Madinah in his time, and how he was taught by his teachers.

Malik was distinguished by a superb memory and a clear insight, with both qualities enabling him to achieve eminence among his peers. His teacher, Az-Zuhri, describes him as a ‘great vessel of knowledge’, and his student, Al-Shafie, says: “When it is a question of hadith, then Malik is the brightest star.” Yet despite his vast knowledge, he would only mention a hadith when he felt that it would be useful to teach it to others.

Another important quality of Malik was his tireless pursuit of knowledge. He endured a lot of hardship in order to achieve his position of distinction. He is quoted as saying: “No one can achieve what he wants of scholarship until poverty has bitten hard at him, but he would endure it nevertheless.” With this determination and power of endurance, he was able to stand up to rulers when it was necessary for him to confront them.

Moreover, Malik was sincere in all that he pursued. His pursuit of knowledge had no objective other than seeking God’s pleasure. Hence, he approached all questions with the same seriousness, even when they were very simple. He would say: “There is nothing simple in this scholarship. It is all hard, particularly what we will have to account for on the Day of Judgement.” It is this sincerity that motivated Malik to refrain from entering any debate or argument with other scholars. When Harun Al-Rasheed, the Caliph, suggested that he should have a debate with Abu Yussuf, the second highest-ranking Hanafi scholar, Malik refused saying: “This scholarship is not like stirring a fight between animals or roosters.” He felt that debates and arguments caused hearts to be hardened and generated animosity between people. He, however, argued with a few sincere scholars in order to show them the evidence on which he based his views.

By God who is the only deity in the universe, I never ordered what was done to you, nor did I know of it. The people of the two sacred cities will remain well as long as you are alive among them. I feel that you are their security against suffering. I believe that, through you, God has lifted a great trial which would have befallen them, because they are always ready to cause trouble. By God, I have ordered that he [meaning the Governor] should be brought here in a state of humiliation and imprisoned in harsh conditions. I must inflict on him far more severe punishment than what he inflicted on you. – These were the words of the most powerful man on earth, Al-Mansoor, the second Abbasi Caliph, apologising to Imam Malik for the harsh treatment he received from the Governor of Madinah for being true to his convictions.

Malik was subjected to a harsh trial, which involved that he was subjected to torture at one stage. That was in 164 A.H. Historians give different reasons for this hardship. is the one given by the, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zuhrah, a distinguished contemporary scholar gives perhaps the most accurate account of this unfortunate episode. During Al-Mansoor’s reign, a rebellion was led by a descendent of Ali, known as Muhammad An-Nafs Az-Zakiyah, who claimed that the pledge of loyalty to Al-Mansoor was given as a result of coercion. Malik used to mention the hadith in which the Prophet is quoted as saying: “No oath given under coercion is valid.” The rebels used this hadith to encourage people to join them, asserting that their pledge of loyalty to Al-Mansoor was not binding. The Governor of Madinah told Malik not to mention this hadith, imparting to him that it was the order of the Caliph. Then the Governor himself sent someone to his circle to ask him about this hadith. Malik, the scholar who valued honesty in scholarship, repeated it as authentic in front of all people in his circle. His view was that a scholar could not conceal knowledge when asked about it. To do so is sinful.

The result was that the Governor felt that he was encouraging the rebels. In consequence, Malik was flogged and his arm was dislocated. The people of Madinah were very angry, feeling that he was treated very harshly. Both the Governor and the Caliph regretted what happened. Hence, on his trip to pilgrimage, Al-Mansoor stopped in Madinah and called in Malik to apologise to him.

When he received the Caliph’s apology, Imam Malik gave the reply to be expected from one like him: generous, noble and forgiving: “May God bless the Caliph and give him His blessings. I have forgiven him because he is a descendent of the Prophet and because he is a relative of yours.”

Needless to say that Malik’s reply greatly enhanced his position with the Caliph, who asked him to write to him whatever he wished, to remove any injustice or to promote people’s interests. Also his position among people was highly enhanced. He continued to enjoy people’s love and respect until his death in 179 A.H. His scholarship continues to inspire scholars all over the Muslim world as his became one of the leading schools of thought in our history.

If the whole episode speaks of Malik’s courage, willingness to state the truth as he knew it, regardless of who may be offended, it also speaks of his sincerity and the value he attached to the position of a scholar in the Muslim community. Malik’s sincerity aimed at arriving at the truth, regardless of who takes the credit for it. He would not give a ruling on any matter that had anything to do with judges and their verdicts. He would not criticise any verdict they might have issued. This is unlike Abu Haneefah’s attitude who criticised any verdict if he felt that the judge was mistaken. However, both attitudes are motivated by sincerity. Abu Haneefah’s attitude showed his great respect and sincerity in pursuing what was right, while Malik was sincere in avoiding anything that could cause trouble. He, however, would speak privately to judges, showing them any point of evidence that they might have overlooked.

In his appearance, Malik was awe-inspiring. Many reports agree that Malik had a spiritual influence on people that made everyone look at him with great respect, love and awe. Furthermore, he was also a man of great insight, not only in knowledge and scholarship, but in people’s characters and qualities. Al-Shafie was still young when he went to Madinah. He reports: “When I arrived in Madinah and met Malik, he listened to me and then looked at me for a while. He was a man of insight. He then asked me my name and said, ‘Muhammad, maintain fear of God and avoid all sin. You are certain to have a position of distinction.'”

Malik lived in poverty for a long time during his pursuit of knowledge. His main income was from a business with a small capital. When he was recognised as a scholar whose views were sought by rulers and caliphs, he was in a much better situation. He accepted financial gifts only from Caliphs, but not from provincial rulers or governors. When he was asked about this, he gave a clear answer that the pursuit of knowledge should be supported by the state. But he never kept all that he received for himself or his family. He supported those of his students who needed support. Among these was Al-Shafie who, like many other students, would not have been able to study without this support. Al-Shafie lived in this status for nine years.

In his political views, Malik was clear that a Caliph should be selected through a process of consultation. Yet if a ruler was to gain his position without consultation, he should be obeyed if he maintains justice. If he follows a dictatorial policy, then that is due to the fact that the people have allowed him to do so. Nevertheless, it is not permissible, according to Malik and many other scholars, to start an armed rebellion against him because that may lead to far greater injustice. Dictators should be advised sincerely whenever a chance arises.

With regard to his scholarship Malik was a highly distinguished scholar of hadith and Fiqh at the same time, and he became an imam, or leader in both fields. Yet he lived at a time when many alien ideas spread. There were groups that maintained that human beings have no will or freedom of choice in any of their actions. One group preached that a person who commits a cardinal sin is a non-believer, while other groups maintained that no sin condemns a believer and no good action is of any benefit when the person who does it is a disbeliever. There were those who took a political view that affected their beliefs, such as the Shia and the Khawarij who rebelled against Ali, the fourth Caliph. People looked up to Malik for guidance on all these matters. He provided that in the clearest possible way. He advised people that the way to follow was that of the early Muslims, the Prophet’s companions and their successors. He advocated that faith should be understood on the basis of the Quran and the Sunnah, not on the basis of pure reasoning and logic. However, he pointed out that nothing in Islam contradicts logic and sound reasoning.

As a great scholar of fiqh Malik followed a method of construction and deduction which he did not write down. Yet some scholars who followed his school outlined this method, which we summarise in the following paragraphs.

Malik places the Quran as the top source of evidence in all questions and rulings. It is the source of Islam in its most comprehensive outlook. He upholds any Quranic text which admits only one interpretation. As for any text admitting different interpretations, he takes it at face value, as long as there is no evidence requiring a different interpretation. He also upholds any ruling that may be deduced from the Quran, even by a hint. Anything that is understood from the Quran is to be given precedence over every thing else. Thus, he may reject a hadith, even though he reports it with an authentic chain of transmission, because he finds in it an element of conflict with the Quran. For example, he rejects the hadith permitting a son or daughter to offer the pilgrimage on behalf of their parents, unless the parents ask them to do so. His basis for rejecting it is the Quranic statement: “Each man shall have the reward only of his labours, and his labours shall certainly be scrutinised, and he shall then be justly requited for them.” (53: 39-41)

The second source is the Sunnah, which Malik considers binding if the hadith is of the type that is known as mutawatir, which means that it is reported by a number of transmitters at every stage, or mashhoor, which is close to that according to hadith classification. When a hadith is transmitted by a single reporter at every stage, Malik upholds it as a source of evidence, but in a later position, placing ahead of it other sources, as we will see. He may also reject some hadiths of this type if he finds them in conflict with a more valid principle. For example, he rejects the hadith recommending fasting 6 days of the month of Shawwal, starting with the second day of the month, because he feels that it may lead to increasing the duty of fasting beyond one month.

Malik considers a practice prevailing in Madinah as evidence for rulings, when such a practice could not have come about except through God’s messenger. He often repeated his teacher, Rabi’ah’s, view: “One thousand following one thousand are better than one taking from one.” He means that a practice of Madinah has been transmitted by its people, generation after generation. Hence, he rejects a hadith of the single reporter type if it happens to be in conflict with the established practice of the people of Madinah.

Another source of evidence, according to Malik, is a ruling by the Prophet’s companions. He equates this with hadith, arguing that a companion of the Prophet would not give a ruling on a matter, unless he has learnt it from the Prophet himself. Hence, he equates such a ruling with hadith. Therefore, should there be a conflict, he takes the one which serves the interests of the people and the community better.

Malik also resorts to analogy, which means applying the ruling specified in a text on a certain matter to other matters when they have the same cause in common. He may also give more weight to a specific interest. Thus, Malik is always looking for what serves the interests of the individual and the community, believing that it is approved by Islam in any matter where we do not have a specific ruling in the Quran or hadith.

The last source of evidence Malik approves is that termed as ‘means leading to a result’. Thus, what leads to something forbidden is itself forbidden, and what leads to something permissible or useful is permissible. To sell grapes is a perfectly legitimate and permissible matter, but to sell it to someone engaged in brewing wine is forbidden, because selling it to such a person is the ‘means’ leading to the making of an intoxicant drink that Islam forbids.

Malik was an outstanding scholar of hadith. His book, known by the name Al-Muwatta’, was the first written collection of hadith. He worked on it for a long time after Al-Mansoor requested him to compile it. He finished it during the reign of Al-Mansoor’s son, Al-Mahdi. In fact, Al-Rasheed, who ruled later, wanted to endorse it as the law of the state and to place a copy of it at the Kaabah, but Malik refused, arguing that Islam was much broader than that. To restrict people to such a book is to overburden them.

Malik divides his book on the basis of the topics of Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. He mentions the hadiths relevant to each topic, as well as the prevailing practice in Madinah. He also mentions some of the views of those successors to the Prophet’s companions whom he had met, and the views of those he had not met. He then records his own view on the matter in question.

Malik’s book has been transmitted in several versions, because Malik continued to revise it and improve on it until his death. It remains one of the most useful books of hadith and fiqh.

The Maliki school of thought remains predominant in North Africa as well as in most sub-Sahara African countries. May God shower His blessings on Malik, a great figure in Islamic scholarship.


The best known work of Imam Malik is Al-Muwatta’. Other books are attributed to Malik, but these have been lost. A letter which is alleged to have been sent by Malik to the Caliph, Haroon Al-Rasheed, was published in Egypt, but there are considerable doubts about its authenticity. Malik could have written a letter to Al-Rasheed, but it seems that over the centuries many additions were made to that letter to make its attribution to Malik unsupportable.

Al-Muwatta’ is the first book of hadith and fiqh ever to be written by a well-known scholar in Islamic history. Prior to its writing scholars relied more on their memory, and wrote only for themselves. They did not write ‘for publication’, as it were. They simply wanted to make sure that they would not forget what they had learned. One or two scholars, contemporaries of Malik, also wrote books, but Malik felt that such books should concentrate mainly on hadith. Therefore, he wrote his book, including in it hadiths, statements by the Prophet’s companions and whatever scholars were unanimous about. He added what he knew to be the normal practice of the people of Madinah on different questions and what scholars have ruled and became well known. If he could find nothing of this on a particular question, he would write down what he felt to be more accurate of the views of contemporary scholars, and if he found nothing in that, he would include his own view on the question, based on analogy. In all this he would rely on the Madinah scholarship only.

One of the main features of Al-Muwatta’ is the fact that Malik arranged it on the basis of Fiqh topics, which makes it easy for scholars and laymen to learn what the Prophet said about different questions. This method has been followed by the great scholars of hadith who were to collect the authentic hadiths, such as Al-Bukhari, Muslim, an-Nassaie, Abu Dawood and al-Tirmithi.

Al-Muwatta’ includes 1720 hadiths and statements by the Prophet’s companions and their successors, but Malik continued to review his book, always deleting some hadiths and statements. His idea was to rely only on the most authentic. Some of its later versions bring the number of hadiths in Al-Muwatta’ to 1100 only. This testifies for Malik’s tireless revision and insistence on retaining only the sum-up of a life of scholarship.

Some scholars place Al-Muwatta’ at the same level as the two Sahih collections by Al-Bukhari and Muslim, while others give it a rank immediately below these and above the other four collections. However we rate it, it is a remarkable and unprecedented effort which continues to inspire millions of Muslims throughout the world.

This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.

Imam Malik said, “The Sunna is like the Ark of Nuh (Noah). Whoever embarks upon it reaches salvation and whoever refuses is drowned.” Quoted by Ibn Taimiyyah in his Majmu’ al-Fatawa (4/57).

Imam al-Shafi’i on Imam Malik, “When scholars are mentioned, Malik is like the star among them.” and “No-one constitutes as great a favour to me in Allah’s Religion as Malik.”




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