What a privilege it is to share the biography of yet another luminary – a man whose story leaves one both lost for words and immensely grateful to Allāh for His gift to humanity through such an individual.
Imām al-Shāfi’ī was born in Gaza, Palestine, the same year (150AH) in which Imām Abū Ḥanīfa passed away. His full name is Muḥammad, son of Idrīs, son of al-‘Abbās, son of ‘Uthmān, son of Shāfi’, son of al-Sā’ib. These last two names – Shāfi’ and al-Sā’ib – belong to two Companions of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ. Al-Sā’ib was with the pagans on the day of Badr and was taken as a captive by the Muslims. He ransomed himself, then embraced Islām. His son, the Companion known as Shāfi’, embraced Islām with the Prophet ﷺ when he was a young man. Hence, Shāfi’ is the name of the great-great-grandfather of al-Shāfi’ī, whom al-Shāfi’ī liked to attribute himself to as he did not live a life of shirk. The ancestry of al-Shāfi’ī meets with the ancestry of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ at ‘Abd al-Manāf.
Isḥāq b. Rāhwayh said:
لقيني أحمد بن حنبل بمكة، فقال: تعالَ حتى أريك رجلاً لم ترَ عيناك مثله. قال: فأقامني على الشافعي
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal met me in Makkah and said: “Come here. Let me show you a man the likes of whom your eyes have never seen.” He then showed me al-Shāfi’ī.
So who was this great man?
The father of Imām al-Shāfi’ī, Idrīs, had decided to emigrate from Makkah to Gaza in search of a better life for his family. It was in al-Shām that his father passed away, leaving al-Shāfi’ī an orphan at the tender age of only two years old. His mother, Fāṭimah, decided to return to Makkah so that the young al-Shāfi’ī would be raised with his clansmen.
Despite the financial difficulty that the virtuous mother of al-Shāfi’ī had found herself in given her husband’s recent death, she wholeheartedly took on the responsibility of teaching sacred knowledge to her young son. To this end, the young al-Shāfi’ī was sent to a small elementary school to learn the Qur’ān, reading, and writing, even though the school’s wages were extremely challenging for his mother.
“When I was in Qur’ān school, I would hear the teacher reciting the verses of Qur’ān that students needed to memorise, and by the time the teacher had finished reciting the portion, I had already memorised it in its entirety.” One day, having realised how gifted al-Shāfi’ī was and the future asset he would become to this dīn, his teacher said to him: “It is not permissible for me to take any money from you.”
One can only imagine the relief that his poverty-stricken mother felt on receiving the news from her son that not only was he excelling at school, but he had also caught the attention of his teacher and had freed her from paying his fees, by the grace of Allāh. By the age of seven, the prodigious talent had completed the memorisation of the Qur’ān from cover to cover, confirming both his mother’s and teacher’s faith in his abilities.
The role of his mother in the journey of al-Shāfi’ī is not an anomaly. In the vast majority of cases where revivers and reformers are formed, their greatness can almost always be traced directly to their mothers. Indeed, the loving and dedicated mother is one of the most knowledgeable of Allāh’s creation with respect to the mastery of tarbiya (nurturing) and the art of creating game-changing individuals.
Consider the Companion al-Zubair b. al-ʿAwwām. He was but a seed planted by his mother, Ṣafiyya b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, and he was an accurate reflection of her. Take the Companion ʿAbd Allāh b. Jaʿfar, leader of the generous, and from the most noble of the youth among the Arabs, as well as the last from the tribe of Hāshim to see the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ. His father was martyred in the battle of Mūʿta, so it was his mother, Asmā b. ʿUmays, who raised him to become the colossus he would be.
Or consider the Companion Muʿāwiya b. Abi Sufyān, who was not only a leader but also a master strategist and scribe of the Prophet ﷺ. The traits of his mother, Hind b. ʿUtbah, were obvious within him. When Muʿāwiya was only a child, his mother heard someone say:
إن عاش معاوية ساد قومه
“If he goes on to become a man, he will lead his community.”
ثكلتُه إن لم يسدْ إلا قومَه
“May I lose him if he will only lead his people!”
Her vision was for her son to lead the entire Muslim Ummah – and that, he did. His mother left such an impression on Muʿāwiya that whenever he needed to identify himself, he would proclaim: “I am the son of Hind!”
Or consider ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Nāsir who marched into Al-Andalus during a period of turmoil and chaos. He not only restored order to Al-Andalus, but he also rebuilt it so that it became the capital of knowledge, civilisation, and enlightenment. Indeed, his army would continue advancing until it reached the very heart of France, together with parts of Switzerland and Italy. What was the secret behind ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, considering that his father and uncle were killed when he was a child? It was none other than his devoted mother.
We cannot conclude this esteemed list without mentioning Sufyān al-Thawrī, the ‘Leader of the Believers in ḥadīth. He was but a seed that his mother had planted and nurtured. She would say to him:
يا بني، اطلُبِ العلم وأنا أكفيك بمغزلي
“My son, pursue knowledge and I will finance you through my weaving.”
Having realised her son’s keen interest in the Islamic sciences and his promising future, the mother of Imām al-Shāfi’ī sent him away to gain the key to it all: the Arabic language. She sent him to travel with the Arab Bedouins to gain command of the Arabic language, utilising the same method through which the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ gained his command of Arabic during his formative years.
It would be the Arab tribe of Hudhayl – known for their talented poets and intellectuals – whom al-Shāfi’ī would accompany for the next 20 years of his life. Through travelling and residing with them, he learned the purest of classical Arabic, memorised poetry, and learnt the ancestries of people. In addition to gaining a mastery of classical Arabic, al-Shāfi’ī also gained more subtle qualities from living with this Bedouin tribe. Such praiseworthy attributes would inform his character and make him the phenomenon he would later be celebrated as.
The linguist Yaḥya b. Hisham said:
طَالَتْ مُجَالَسَتُنَا لِمُحَمَّدِ بْنِ إِدْرِيسَ الشَّافِعِيِّ فَمَا سَمِعْتُ مِنْهُ لَحْنَةً قَطُّ، وَلَا كَلِمَةً غَيْرُهَا أَحْسَنُ مِنْهَا
“We sat in the gatherings of al-Shāfi’ī for extended periods of time, and I never heard him make a single grammatical mistake in his speech, nor did he ever choose a word that could be replaced with a better one.”
By the time he had returned to Makkah, Imām al-Shāfi’ī was a master linguist, having memorised 10,000 couplets of poetry. He narrated to the people the mannerisms of the Arabs, as well as their ancestries and stories. It was in Makkah that al-Shāfi’ī would experience a pivotal moment in his life – one that over a millennium later, we are still benefiting from. A man from the tribe of ‘Uthmān, from the Zubayriyyīn, said to him:
يا أبا عبد الله، عزّ عليّ أن لا يكون مع هذه اللغة وهذه الفصاحة والذكاء فقه، فتكون قد سدت أهل زمانك
“Father of ‘Abdullāh, it really does pain me that this mastery of language that you have, along with your eloquence and intelligence, will pass without mixing it with some Fiqh (Islamic law). If you were to combine the two, you will lead the people of your time.”
Al-Shāfi’ī asked him:
“Who is left from those whom knowledge should be sought from?”
The man replied,
هذا مالك بن أنس سيد المسلمين
“That great man, Mālik b. Anas, the leader of the Muslims.”
This statement had such a profound effect on him that al-Shāfi’ī borrowed a copy of Imām Mālik’s Muwaṭṭa’ and memorised it in only nine days. Take notice here of the studiousness of al-Shāfi’ī. He did not want to attend the class unprepared. Instead, he diligently researched and memorised the subject matter beforehand in order to demonstrate his respect for the knowledge and the educator, as well as gain maximum benefit from the class. His conduct is in direct contrast to many students today who, both in secular and Islamic lectures, fail to do any pre-reading, turning up without ever engaging their brains. Such pupils squander their time during the lesson trying to get to grips with basic meanings, whereas they could have made better use of such an opportunity by clarifying issues or elaborating further with the teacher.
The next challenge for Imām al-Shāfi’ī would be gaining access to the great Imām Mālik. Al-Shāfi’ī visited the governor of Makkah to obtain a written reference to submit this to the governor of Madīnah. Imām al-Shāfi’ī travelled to Madīnah at the age of 12 years old, whilst other narrations suggest that he was 20. He delivered the reference to the governor of Madīnah and asked that it be forwarded to Imām Mālik, but the governor said:
“Young man, by Allāh, walking from the middle of Madīnah to the middle of Makkah barefooted and without anything on my head is easier for me than approaching the door of Imām Mālik. The only time I ever feel humiliated is when I stand there.”
As we have mentioned before, Allāh had clothed Imām Mālik with an aura of awe that was even greater than that possessed by governors or caliphs. Al-Shāfi’ī was yet to discover this in person, so he innocently suggested:
“You do not have to go to him – make him come to you.”
The governor exclaimed:
“That can never happen! I have no guarantee that even if I, my entourage, and yourself were to ride to his house in a humbled state, that he would even let us in!”
After some deliberation, the nervous pair arrived at the house of Imām Mālik. They knocked on the door and Imām Mālik’s servant answered. The governor of Madīnah instructed her to tell Imām Mālik that the governor of Madīnah is at his door. The servant went back inside and took a while to return. When she did, she said:
“He conveys his Salām to you and says that if you have a religious question, to write it on a piece of paper and he will answer it. If you want to learn Ḥadīth, you should go to his circles of knowledge.”
The governor of Madīnah said to her:
“Tell him that I have a letter for him from the governor of Makkah, on a very important matter.”
She went back inside and returned with a chair. Then, an imposing, tall, fair-haired, and fair-skinned man with coloured eyes – unlike the people of Madīnah – came to the door and sat on the chair. Without uttering a word, the governor of Madīnah gave Imām Mālik the letter. When Imām Mālik read the letter, he threw it aside and said:
يا سبحان الله وصار علم رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وسلم) يؤخذ بالرسائل؟!
“SubḥānAllāh! Has it come to this? That the knowledge of the Prophet ﷺ now needs connections?!”
The governor was lost for words and awe-struck before Imām Mālik, so Al-Shāfi’ī had no option but to advocate for himself. He said, “May Allāh bless you. I am a Muṭṭalibi, from the lineage of the Prophet ﷺ,” and he went on introducing himself. Imām Mālik glared into his face for a moment and then said, “What is your name?” Al-Shāfi’ī said, “Muḥammad.” Imām Mālik then said:
يا محمد ! اتق الله ، واجتنب المعاصي ، فإنه سيكون لك شأن من الشأن ، إن الله تعالى قد ألقى على قلبك نورا ، فلا تطفئه بالمعصية
“O Muḥammad, be cautious of Allāh and stay away from sins, for you are going to reach lofty stations. Allāh has placed light in your heart, so do not extinguish it with sins.”
This was the understanding of our predecessors: beneficial knowledge and sound understanding are not compatible with the heart of a persistent sinner.
Ibn Mas’ūd, the Companion of the Prophet ﷺ, said:
انى لأحسب أن الرجل ينسى العلم يعلمه بالذنب يعمله
“I believe that one will forget part of his knowledge following a sin that he commits.” 
Similarly, Imām Ibn Taymiyyah said:
إنه ليقف خاطري في المسألة التي تشكل عليَّ، فأستغفر الله تعالى ألف مرة، أو أكثر أو أقل، حتى ينشرح الصدر وينحل إشكال ما أشكل
“At times, I get stuck at a particular matter of knowledge that confuses me, so I ask Allāh to forgive me 1000 times, or more or less, until my chest is expanded and the matter becomes clear.”
Much like what happens when water and oil come into contact, knowledge and sins will eventually part ways. Ibn al-Qayyim once wrote in a couplet of poetry:
حُبُّ الكتابِ وحبُّ ألحانِ الغناء * في قلبِ عبدٍ ليس يجتمعان
“The love of the book and that of songs can never, in any one heart, combine.”
To contextualise this into a modern example, most of us have probably experienced our computers slowing down, sometimes even crashing when multiple applications are run simultaneously. The RAM of our computers simply cannot cope with multiple demands. Similarly, a heart that is consumed by sins struggles to focus on the Divine, and it struggles to internalise sacred knowledge, let alone act upon it.
After issuing his advice, Imām Mālik said: “Yes, with pleasure, I will teach you. Come back tomorrow morning, together with someone who can read the Muwaṭṭa’ for you.” Al-Shāfi’ī said, “I will read it directly to you.”
The young Imām al-Shāfi’ī returned the next morning bright and early, holding a copy of the Muwatta’ in his hand. Imām Mālik waited for him to open it and begin, but Imām al-Shāfi’ī started reciting the entire book from memory, page by page and chapter by chapter. Al-Shāfi’ī would occasionally stop, sensing the awe with which Imām Mālik would look at him due to his flawless Arabic grammar and eloquent speech. Indeed, a gem with no parallel had arrived at his door. Imām Mālik would beckon him to continue by saying, “I ask you in Allāh’s name, keep reading.” Al-Shāfi’ī obliged and completed the entire Muwaṭṭa’ within only a few days. Thereafter, al-Shāfi’ī remained in Madīnah by his teacher’s side and service, until the latter met his Maker – a true symbol of dedication.
Abū Yūsuf – Imām Abū Ḥanīfa’s famous student – said:
الْعِلْمُ شَيْءٌ لا يُعْطِيكَ بَعْضَهُ حَتَّى تُعْطِيَهُ كُلَّكَ
“Knowledge will not hand over part of itself to you until you first hand over your entire self to it.”
Ibn ‘Adī said:
رَأيتُ مَجْلسَ الفِرْيَابيّ يُحْزرُ فيهِ خمسة عشر ألْف محبرة، وكُنَّا نحتاجُ أنْ نبيتَ في موضعِ المجلسِ لنتخذَ مِنْ الغد موضعَ مجلس
“I saw the study circles of al-Firyābi (one of the teachers of Imām Al-Bukhārī). There were around 5000 students. We needed to sleep in our places (after the class) to find a place the next day.”
This is the work ethic that a student of knowledge needs, exemplified by Imām al-Shāfi’ī, who was once asked, “Describe to us your craving for knowledge,” to which he said:
اسمع بالحرف مما لم اسمعه من قبل فتود أعضائي أن لها سمعا تتنعم به مثل ما تنعمت به الأذنان
“At times, I hear knowledge that I had not heard of before, and so I wish that the rest of my limbs had ears so that they could experience the pleasure that my ears had just experienced.”
 Ḥilya al-Awliyā’
 Tārīkh Dimashq
 Al-Bidāyah wa al-Nihāyah
 Ansāb al-Ashrāf
 Ṣafwah al-Ṣafwah
 Ḥilya al-Awliyā’
 This means from the descendants of the great Companion Zubair al-Awwām
 Tārīkh Dimashq
 Al-Zuhd, Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal
 Al-‘Uqūd al-Durrīyya fī Manāqib Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah
 Nūniyyāt Ibn al-Qayyim
 Al-Faqīh wa al-Mutafaqqih
 Tawāli Al-Ta’sīs
Shaykh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is Islam21c’s Tarbiya Editor. A UK national of Palestinian origin, he gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari’ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Shaykh Ali is the author of several books including ‘The Daily Revivals’, ‘The Ten Lanterns’ and ‘The Friday Reminder’. He delivers sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.