"Zahiri" redirects here. For other uses, see Zahiri (disambiguation).

Ẓāhirī (Arabic: ظاهري‎), sometimes spelled Dhahiri, is a school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence. The school is named after one of its early prominent jurists, Dawud ibn Khalaf al-Zahiri (died 883),[1] and is known for its insistence on sticking to the manifest (zahir) or apparent meaning of expressions in the Qur'an and the Sunnah; the followers of this school are called Zahiriyah.

Their numbers having dwindled since the Middle Ages, the Zahirite school is adhered to by minority communities in Morocco and Pakistan. In the past, adherents to the school comprised a majority of the Muslims living in Mesopotamia, Southern Iran, the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands and North Africa. Many among the modern-day Ahl al-Hadith movement, though not all, tend to follow the Zahiri school of thought.


While those outside the school of thought often point to Dawud al-Zahiri as the "founder" of the school, followers of the school themselves tend to look to earlier figures such as Sufyan al-Thawri and Ishaq Ibn Rahwayh as the forerunners of Zahiri principles. Umm al-Qura University professor Abdul Aziz al-Harbi has claimed that the first generation of Muslims followed the school's methods and therefore can be called The School of the First Generation.[2]

City-states and Imperial period

Initially termed the "Dawudi" school after al-Zahiri himself, the school initially held reign over the judiciary of what is modern-day Iraq. As it spread from this central region, Zahiri judges were appointed by the administrations of Baghdad, Shiraz, Isfahan, Firuzabad, Ramla, Damascus, Sindh and Fustat.[3][4] In the east under Abbasid rule, the Zahiri school still had to compete with the other Sunni schools; the Zahiri leaders' weak political and personal relations with Abbasid vizier Ali ibn Isa al-Jarrah and Jarrah's strong relations with the Shafi'ites caused the Zahiris to fall out of favor with the government.[5] At that time, the four schools of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence were reckoned as the Hanafites, Malikites, Shafi'ites and Zahirites; the Hanbalites were not yet considered an independent school.[6]

Eventually, the Zahiris wound up losing the judiciary of Baghdad after some time while retaining its stronghold of Shiraz.[7] University of Oxford Islamic scholar Christopher Melchert holds the view that a combination of poor relations with the government, the somewhat elitist nature of Zahiri literary circles and the failure of Zahiri jurists to produce central texts summarizing all the school's positions all contributed to the school's downfall in Baghdad.[5] Whatever the reason, the Zahiri school lost its dominance over all of Mesopotamia and Iran due to official promotion of the Hanafi school. The Zahiris held on to Syria until 788 and held strong influence in Egypt for even longer, though eventually they lost most support in the east as a whole.[6]

Universal period and Golden Age

Parallel to the school's inception, Zahiri ideas were introduced to North Africa by theologians of the Maliki school who were engaged in fierce debates with the Hanafi school, and to the Iberian Peninsula by one of Dawud al-Zahiri's direct students.[8] Unlike Abbasid lands where the competition was plentiful, the Zahiri school only had to contend with its Maliki counterpart in the Muslim west. Actual Zahiris themselves appeared shortly after their ideas, settling in various parts of what is now Spain and Portugal in the late 9th century.[9] Under the rule of the Umayyads, Almoravids and warring Taifa states, the Zahiri school remained on the periphery, existing only with learned men without enjoying the wide acceptance known to the Maliki school.

It was not until the rise of the Almohads that the Zahiri school enjoyed official state sponsorship. While not all of the Almohad political leaders were Zahiris, a large plurality of them were not only adherents but were well-versed theologians in their own right.[10] Additionally, all Almohad leaders - both the religiously learned and the laymen - were extremely hostile toward the Malikis, giving the Zahiris and in a few cases the Shafi'is free rein to author works and run the judiciary. In the late 12th century, any religious material written by non-Zahiris was at first banned and later burned in the empire under the Almohad reforms.[11][12]

Decentralization and fragmentation period

With the Reconquista and the loss of Iberia to Christian rule, most works of Zahiri law and legal theory were lost as well, with the school only being carried on by individual scholars, once again on the periphery. In the 14th century, the Zahiri Revolt marked both a brief rekindling of interest in the school's ideas as well as affirmation of its status as a non-mainstream ideology. Al-Muhalla, a Medieval manual on Zahiri jurisprudence, served in part as inspiration for the revolt and as a primary source of the school's positions.[13] While Zahirite ideas remained, the school's followers became so rare that many historians began to declare it extinct.

Modern history

In the modern era, the Zahiri school has often been described as semi-operational, though still very influential.[14] While the school does not comprise a majority of any part of the Muslim world, there are communities of Zahiris in existence, usually due to the presence of Zahiri scholars of Islamic law. Notably, adherents of the modern-day Ahl al-Hadith movement have been comparied to Zahirites, and many have accepted and even self-identified as such.[15][16] Additionally, professors of Islamic law adhering to the Zahiri school are present, though small in number. Modernist revival of the general critique by Ibn Hazm - the school's most prominent representative - of Islamic legal theory among Muslim academics has seen several key moments in recent Arab intellectual history, including Ahmad Shakir's republishing of Al-Muhalla, Muhammad Abu Zahra's biography of Ibn Hazm, and the republishing of archived epistles on Zahiri legal theory by Sa'id al-Afghani in 1960 and Ihsan Abbas between 1980 and 1983.[17] The continued existence and legitimacy of the Zahiri school was upheld by the Amman Message in 2004,[18] and was even counted as one of the recognized schools of thought in Islam by Sudan's Islamist former Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi.[19] Regardless of such recognition, Zahiris in major institutions such as Al-Azhar University and Darul Uloom Deoband are extremely rare and this school is sometimes called small but very influential.


Of the utmost importance to the school is an underlying principle attributed to the founder Dawud that the validity of religious issues is only upheld by certainty, and that speculation cannot lead to the truth.[20] Most Zahirite principles return to this overarching maxim. Japanese Islamic scholar Kojiro Nakamura defines the Zahiri schools as resting on two presumptions. The first is that if it were possible to draw more general conclusions from the strict reading of the sources of Islamic law, then God certainly would have expressed these conclusions already; thus, all that is necessary lies in the text. The second is that for man to seek the motive behind the commandments of God is not only a fruitless endeavor but a presumptuous one.[21] Thus in the Zahiri view, Islam as an entire religious system is tied to the literal letter of the law, no more and no less.

The Zahiri school of thought recognizes three sources of the Islamic law within the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. The first is the Qur'an, considered by Muslims to be the verbatim word of God (Arabic: الله Allah); the second consists of the prophetic as given in historically verifiable reports, which consist of the sayings and actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad; the last is absolute consensus of the Muslim community.

The school differs from the more prolific schools of Islamic thought in that it restricts valid consensus in jurisprudence to the consensus of the first generation of Muslims who lived alongside Muhammad only.[22][23] While Abu Hanifa and Ahmad bin Hanbal agreed with them in this, the followers of the Hanafi and Hanbali schools generally do not, nor do the other two Sunni schools. Additionally, the Zahiri school does not accept analogical reasoning as a source of Islamic law,[24] nor do they accept the practice of juristic discretion, pointing to a verse in the Qur'an which declares that nothing has been neglected in the Muslim scriptures.[25] While Al-Shafi'i and followers of his school agree with the Zahiris (but some the great followers of this school accept the alternative to Grading system called the Inference system) in rejecting the latter, all other Sunni schools accept the former, though at varying levels.

Distinct rulings

  • Followers of the Zahirite school differs with the majority in that they consider the Virgin Mary to have been a female prophet.[26]
  • The Zahirite school uses the Inference method and it is the alternative to the Grading method used by Shafi'i school.
  • The founder of this school had more respect then even of the habali school with respect to the original positions of the great imams Abu hanfia and Shafi
  • Riba, or interest, on hand-to-hand exchanges of gold, silver, dates, salt, wheat and barley are prohibited per the prophet Muhammad's injunction, but analogical reasoning is not used to extend that injunction to other agricultural produce as is the case with other schools, (although some of the followers do accept the Inference method). The Zahirites are joined in this by early scholars pre-dating the legal schools such as Tawus ibn Kaysan and Qatadah.[27]
  • Admission in an Islamic court of law is seen as indivisible by Zahirites, meaning that a party cannot accept some aspects of the opposing party's testimony and not other parts. The Zahirites are opposed by the Hanafi and Maliki schools, though a majority of Hanbalites share the Zahirite position.[28]


Like its founder Dawud, the Zahiri school has been controversial since its inception.[29] Due to their rejection of intellectual principles considered staples of other strains within Sunni Islam, adherents to the school have been described as displaying non-conformist attitudes.[30]

Views on Zahirism within Sunni Islam

The Zahiri school has often been criticized by other schools within Sunni Islam. While this is true of all schools, relations between the Hanafis, Shafi'is and Malikis have warmed to each other over the centuries; this has not always been the case with the Zahiris.

Not surpisingly given the conflict over al-Andalus, Maliki scholars have often expressed negative feelings regarding the Zahiri school. Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi, whose father was a Zahiri, nevertheless considered Zahiri law to be absurd.[31] Ibn 'Abd al-Barr, himself a former Zahiri, excluded Dawud al-Zahiri along with Ahmad ibn Hanbal from his book on Sunni Islam's greatest jurists,[32] though Ignác Goldziher has suggested that Ibn Abdul-Barr remained Zahiri privately and outwardly manifested Maliki ideas due to prevailing pressures at the time. At least with al-Ballūṭī, one example of a Zahiri jurist applying Maliki law due to official enforcement is known. Zahiris such as Ibn Hazm were intensely insulted and verbally abused by Maliki jurists after their deaths,[31] displaying negative feelings which were almost personal in nature.

Followers of the Shafi'ite school within Sunni Islam have historically been involved in intellectual conflict with Zahirites.[33] Al-Juwayni and Al-Nawawi considered the Zahirite school entirely invalid; Al-Dhahabi and Ibn al-Salah merely disagreed with Zahirite teachings, but still defended their legitimacy from criticism such that of Juwayni and Ibn al-Arabi, pointing out that the Zahirites arrived to their conclusions via scholarly discourse just as the other legal schools had.[34]

Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Qayyim, while himself a critic of the Zahiri outlook, defended the school's legitimacy in Islam, stating rhetorically that their only sin was "following the book of their Lord and example of their Prophet."[35]

Zahirism and Sufism

The relationship between Zahirism and Sufism has been complicated. Throughout the school's history, its adherents have always included both harsh critics of Sufism as well as Sufis themselves. Many practitioners of Sufism, which often emphasizes detachment from the material world, have been attracted to Zahirism's combination of strict ritualism and lack of emphasis on dogmatics.[36][37]

Notable Zahiris

Discerning who exactly is an adherent to the Zahiri school of thought can be difficult. Harbi has claimed that most Muslim scholars who practiced independent reasoning and based their judgment only on the Qur'an and Sunnah, or Muslim prophetic tradition, were Zahiris.[2] Followers of other schools of thought may have adopted certain viewpoints of the Zahiris, holding "Zahirite leanings" without actually adopting the Zahiri school; often, these individuals were erroneously referred to as Zahiris despite contrary evidence.[38]

Additionally, historians would often refer to any individual who praised the Zahiris as being from them. Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi has most often been referred to as a Zahiri because of a commentary on one of Ibn Hazm's works, despite having stated twice that he isn't a follower of the Zahiri school or any other school of thought.[39] Similarly, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari would include Zahiri opinions when comparing differing views of Sunni Muslims, yet he founded a distinct school of his own.[40] The case of Muslim figures who have mixed between different schools have proven to be more problematic. Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, for example, referred to himself as a Zahiri when pressed on the matter,[41] though he is generally acknowledge not to have adhered to any specific school. When Ibn Hazm listed the most important leaders of the school, he listed known Zahirites Abdullah bin Qasim, al-Balluti, Ibn al-Mughallis, al-Dibaji and Ruwaym, but then also mentioned Abu Bakr al-Khallal,[42] who despite his Zahirite leanings is almost universally recognized as a Hanbalite.

Followers of the Zahiri School

  • Abd Allah al-Qaysi (died 885), responsible for spreading the school in Spain.
  • Muhammad bin Dawud al-Zahiri (died 909), son of the school's namesake.
  • Ibn Abi Asim (died 909), early scholar of hadith.
  • Ruwaym (died 915), spiritual pioneer from the second generation of Sufism.
  • Niftawayh (died 935), student of the school's namesake and teacher of his son.
  • Ibn al-Mughallis (died 936), credited with popularizing the school across the Muslim world.
  • Al-Masudi (died 956), early Muslim historian and geographer.
  • Mundhir bin Sa'īd al-Ballūṭī (died 966), early judge in Spain for the Caliphate of Córdoba.
  • Al-Qassab (died 970), Muslim warrior-scholar.
  • Ibn Khafif (died 982), early mystic from the third generation of Sufism.
  • Ibn Hazm (died 1064), Andalusian polymath, author of numerous works.
  • Al-Humaydī (died 1095), hadith scholar, historian and biographer in Spain and then Iraq.
  • Ibn al-Qaisarani (died 1113), responsible for canonizing the six hadith books of Sunni Islam.
  • Ibn Tumart (died 1130), founder of the Almohad Empire
  • Abd al-Mu'min (died 1163), first Almohad Caliph.
  • Abu Yaqub Yusuf (died 1184), second Almohad Caliph, memorized Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
  • Ibn Maḍāʾ (died 1196), Andalusian judge and linguist, and an early champion of language education reform.
  • Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (died 1199), third Almohad Caliph, authored his own collection of hadith.
  • Muhammad al-Nasir (died 1213), fourth Almohad Caliph.
  • Idris I al-Ma'mun (died 1232), renegade who issued a challenge for the Almohad throne.
  • Ibn Dihya al-Kalby (died 1235), hadith scholar from Spain and then Egypt.
  • Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati (died 1239), Andalusian botanist, pharmacist and theologian.
  • Fatḥ al-Din Ibn Sayyid al-Nās (died 1334), Andalusian-Egyptian biographer of the prophet Muhammad.
  • Abu Hayyan Al Gharnati (died 1344), Andalusian linguist and Qur'anic exegete.
  • Al-Maqrizi (died 1442), Egyptian historian, especially of the Fatimid Caliphate.

Contemporary followers of the school

See also

Islam portal


External links

  • Dr. Literalism, Empiricism, and Induction: Apprehending and Concretizing Islamic Law's Maqasid al-Shari'ah in the Modern World.
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