He was born in Ghazza or `Asqalan in 150, the year of Abu Hanifa’s death, and moved to Mecca at the age of two, following his father’s death, where he grew up. He was early a skillful archer, then he took to learning language and poetry until he gave himself to fiqh, beginning with hadith. He memorized the Qur’an at age seven, then Malik’s Muwatta’ at age ten, at which time his teacher would deputize him to teach in his absence. At age thirteen he went to see Malik, who was impressed by his memory and intelligence.
Malik ibn Anas and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani were among his most prominent teachers and he took position against both of them in fiqh. Al-Shafi`i said: “From Muhammad ibn al-Hasan I wrote a camel-load.” Al-Hakim narrated from `Abd Allah ibn `Abd al-Hakam: “Al-Shafi`i never ceased to speak according to Malik’s position and he would say: ‘We do not differ from him other than in the way of his companions,’ until some young men spoke unbecomingly at length behind his back, whereupon al-Shafi`i resolved to put his differences with Malik in writing. Otherwise, his whole life he would say, whenever asked something: ‘This is what the Teacher said’ – hâdha qawl al-ustadh – meaning Malik.”
Like Abu Hanifa and al-Bukhari, he recited the entire Qur’an each day at prayer, and twice a day in the month of Ramadan.
Ibn Rahuyah described him in Mecca as wearing bright white clothes with an intensely black beard. Al-Za`farani said that when he was in Baghdad in the year 195 he dyed his beard with henna.
Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Sallam said: “If the intelligence of an entire nation was brought together he would have encompassed it.” Similarly, al-Muzani said: “I have been looking into al-Shafi`i’s Risala for fifty years, and I do not recall a single time I looked at it without learning some new benefit.”
Imaam Ahmad related by his students Abu Talib and Humayd ibn Zanjuyah to say: “I never saw anyone adhere more to hadith than al-Shafi`i. No-one preceded him in writing down the hadith in a book.” Imma Ahmad ibn Hanbal also said: “Not one of the scholars of hadith touched an inkwell nor a pen except he owed a huge debt to al-Shafi`i.”
Al-Shafi`i was known for his peculiar strength in Arabic language, poetry, and philology. Bayhaqi narrated:
[From Ibn Hisham:] I was al-Shafi`i’s sitting-companion for a long time, and I never heard him use except a word which, carefully considered, one would not find (in its context) a better word in the entire Arabic language. . . . Al-Shafi`i’s discourse, in relation to language, is a proof in itself.
Al-Shafi`i trod the path of the Salaf in avoiding any interpretation of the verses and narrations pertaining to the divine attributes. He practiced “relegation of the meaning” (tafwîd al-mi`na) to a higher source, as established in his saying: “I leave the meaning of the verses of the Attributes to Allah, and I leave the meaning of the hadiths of the attributes to Allah’s Messenger.” Al-Hakkari (d. 486) related in his book `Aqida al-Shafi`i that the latter said: “We affirm those attributes, and we negate from them likeness between them and creation (al-tashbîh), just as He negated it from Himself when He said: ‘There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him’ (42:11).”
Al-Shafi`i’s hatred of dialectic theology (kalâm) was based on his extreme caution against errors which bear heavy consequences as they induce one into false beliefs. Among his sayings concerning this: “It is better for a scholar of knowledge to give a fatwa after which he is said to be wrong than to theologize and then be said to be a heretic (zindîq). I hate nothing more than theology and theologians.” Dhahabi comments: “This indicates that Abu `Abd Allah’s position concerning error in the principles of the Religion (al-usûl) is that it is not the same as error in the course of scholarly exertion in the branches.” The reason is that in belief and doctrine neither ijtihâd nor divergences are permitted. In this respect al-Shafi`i said: “It cannot be asked ‘Why?’ concerning the principles, nor ‘How?’” Yet al-Shafi`i did not completely close the door to the use of kalâm in defense of the Sunna, as shown below and in the notice on Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
Yunus ibn Abi Ya`la narrated that al-Shafi`i defined the “principles” as: “The Qur’an, the Sunna, analogy (al-qiyâs), and consensus (al-ijmâ`)”; he defined the latter to mean: “The adherence of the Congregation (jamâ`a) of the Muslims to the conclusions of a given ruling pertaining to what is permitted and what is forbidden after the passing of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him.”
Al-Shafi`i did not close the door on the right use of kalâm as is clear from Ibn Abi Hatim’s narration from al-Rabi` of his words: “If I wished, I could produce a book against each one of those who deviated, but dialectic theology is none of my business, and I would not like to be attributed any part in it.” Similar to it is his advice to his student al-Muzani: “Take proofs from creation about the Creator, and do not burden yourself with the knowledge of what your mind did not reach.” Ibn Abi Hatim himself spoke similarly when he was told of Ibn Khuzayma’s unsuccessful attempt at kalâm: “It is preferable not to meddle with what we did not learn.” Note that al-Shafi`i also spoke of his wish not to have a single letter out of all his works attributed to him, regardless of topic.
Al-Shafi`i’s attitude towards tasawwuf was as strict as with kalâm, and he both praised it and denigrated its abuse at the hands of its corrupters. In criticism of the latter he said: “No-one becomes a Sufi in the morning except he ends up a idiot by noon” In Mecca al-Shafi`i was the student of Fudayl ibn `Iyad. Imam al-Nawawi in his Bustan al-`Arifin fi al-Zuhd wa al-Tasawwuf narrated from al-Shafi`i the saying: “Only the sincere one (al-mukhlis) can recognize self-display (al-riyâ’).” Al-Nawawi comments: “This means that it is impossible to know the reality of self-display and see its hidden shades except for one who resolutely seeks (arâda) sincerity. Such a one strives for a long time, searching, meditating, examining at length within himself until he knows, or knows something of what self-display is. This does not happen for everyone. Indeed, this happens only with special ones (al-khawâss). But for a given individual to claim that he knows what self-diplay is, this is real ignorance on his part.”
Two schools of legal thought or madhahib are actually attributed to al-Shafi`i, englobing his writings and legal opinions (fatâwa). These two schools are known in the terminology of jurists as “The Old” (al-qadîm) and “The New” (al-jadîd), corresponding respectively to his stays in Iraq and Egypt. The most prominent transmitters of the New among al-Shafi`i’s students are al-Buwayti, al-Muzani, al-Rabi` al-Muradi, and al-Bulqini, in Kitab al-Umm (“The Motherbook”). The most prominent transmitters of the Old are Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Karabisi, al-Za`farani, and Abu Thawr, in Kitab al-Hujja (“Book of the Proof”). What is presently known as the Shafi`i position refers to the New except in approximately twenty-two questions, in which Shafi`i scholars and muftis have retained the positions of the Old.
Al-Shafi`i took the verse “Or if you have touched women” (4:43) literally, and considered that contact between the sexes, even accidental, nullified ablution. This is also the position of Ibn Mas`ud, Ibn `Umar, al-Sha`bi, al-Nakha`i, al-Zuhri, and al-Awza`i, which is confirmed by Ibn `Umar’s report: “Whoever kisses or touches his wife with his hand must renew his wudû’.” It is authentic and related in numerous places including Malik’s Muwatta’. Al-Shafi`i said: “Something similar has reached us from Ibn Mas`ud.” They all read the above verse literally, without interpreting “touch” to mean “sexual intercourse” as do the Hanafis, or “touch with pleasure” as do the Malikis.
Among al-Shafi`i’s other notable positions: Al-Muzani said: “I never saw any of the scholars make something obligatory on behalf of the Prophet as much as al-Shafi`i in his books, and this was due to his high remembrance of the Prophet. He said in the Old School: ‘Supplication ends with the invocation of blessings on the Prophet, and its end is but by means of it.’” Al-Karabisi said: “I heard al-Shafi`i say that he disliked for someone to say ‘the Messenger’ (al-Rasûl), but that he should say ‘Allah’s Messenger’ (Rasûl Allah) out of veneration (ta`zîm) for him.”
Among al-Shafi`i’s other sayings:
“The study of hadith is better than supererogatory prayer, and the pursuit of knowledge is better than supererogatory prayer.” Ibn `Abd al-Barr in Kitab al-`Ilm listed the many hadiths of the Prophet on the superior merit of knowledge. Al-Shafi`i’s said: “Knowledge is what benefits. Knowledge is not what one has memorized.” “He gives wisdom to whomever He will, and whoever receives wisdom receives immense good.” (2:269)
Al-Buwayti asked: “Should I pray behind the Rafidi (shia)?” Al-Shafi`i said: “Do not pray behind the Rafidi, nor behind the Qadari, nor behind the Murji’.” Al-Buwayti said: “Define them for us.” He replied: “Whoever says ‘Belief consists only in speech’ is a Murji’, and whoever says ‘Abu Bakr and `Umar are not Imams’ is a Rafidi, and whoever attributes destiny to himself is a Qadari.”
Nawawi in Al-Majmoo’ relates from Al-Shafi’i “When a hadith is found to be sahih, then that is my madhhab.”
Ibn Abi Haatim in Aadaab ash-Shaafi’i (pp. 94-5) relates the Al-Shafi’i said “You (addressing Imaam Ahmad ibn Hanbal) are more knowledgeable about Hadith than I, so when a hadith is sahih, inform me of it, whether it is from Kufah, Basrah or Syria, so that I may take the view of the hadith, as long as it is sahih.”
Abu Hatim narrated from Harmala that al-Shafi`i said: “The Caliphs (al-khulafâ’) are five: Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Uthman, `Ali, and `Umar ibn `Abd al-`Aziz.” In his Diwan he named them “leaders of their people, by whose guidance one obtains guidance.”
Ibn Hajar said that the first to write a biography of al-Shafi`i was Dawud al-Zahiri (d. 275). Al-Nawawi in Tahdhib al-Asma’ wa al-Lughat (1:44) mentioned that the best biography of al-Shafi`i was al-Bayhaqi’s for its sound chains of transmission. Ibn Hajar summarized it and added to it al-Shafi`i’s Musnad in his Tawali al-Ta’sis fi Ma`ali Ibn Idris.
In the introduction of his compendium of Shafi`i fiqh entitled al-Majmu` al-Nawawi mentions that al-Shafi`i used a walking stick for which he was asked: “Why do you carry a stick when you are neither old nor ailing?” He replied: “To remember I am only a traveller in this world.”
Main sources: al-Shafi`i, Diwan; Abu Nu`aym, Hilya al-Awliya’ 9:71-172 #442; al-Nawawi, Tahdhib al-Asma’ wa al-Lughat 1:44-67 #2; al-Dhahabi, Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’ 8:377-423 #1539, 10:79, 10:649; al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyya al-Kubra 2:133-134; Ibn Hajar, Tawali al-Ta’sis p. 3-157.