Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idriss descended from the Hashimi family of the Quraysh tribe to which the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, belonged. He was born in Gaza, Palestine in 150H / 767CE, and became famous as Imam Ash-Shafi'i.
His father died when he was very young and he was brought up by his mother in a very poor home. Thinking his relatives would help her raise him to be a good Muslim, she took him to Makkah. He spent a lot of his time among the Bedouins as he mastered Arabic and acquired great knowledge of Arabic poetry.
At the age of twenty, he went to Madinah and remained there as a student of Imam Malik till the latter's death in 796CE. He spent a total of nine years with Malik during which he managed to learn everything Malik had to offer. He also came into contact with other learned men from whom he acquired more knowledge of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Imam Ash-Shafi'i possessed a very sharp memory and knew all of Imam Malik's Muwatta by heart.
But, acquiring the knowledge of the scholars in Madinah was only the start for Ash-Shafi'i because he travelled extensively to most of the places known for knowledge at the time. In 187H / 804CE, he visited Syria and from there proceeded to Egypt where he settled. As a student of Imam Malik, he was received with great honour and respect by the people and scholars of Egypt. And, in 810CE he went to Baghdad and there he was surrounded by a large number of students who were eager to acquire knowledge of the faith and practices of Islam from him. One important student there was Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
The Shafi'i school of Fiqh (Jurisprudence) emerged from these students who practised and propagated the views and rulings of Imam Ash-Shafi'i through their writings and preaching.
Imam Ash-Shafi'i wrote several books, the most well known of which is called Al-Umm, which is a collection of writings and lectures of the Imam. A number of his students have also collected his writings, lectures and rulings in the form of books, or quoted him in their books.
Baghdad, Iraq and Cairo, Egypt were the chief centres of Imam Ash-Shafi'i's activities. It is from these two cities that the teachings of the Shafi'i school spread in the 9th century CE. During the time of Sultan Salahuddin, the Shafi'i Madhhab (or school of Jurisprudence) was the most prominent in Egypt, and to this day the Imam of the Al-Azhar Masjid is always a Shafi'i and the Shafi'i Madhhab is industriously studied along with that of the other three schools of the Ahlus-Sunnah.
Imam Ash-Shafi'ee was a man of strong and vigorous mind, better acquainted with the world than Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Malik. He formed, from the materials furnished by Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifah, an eclectic school, which found acceptance chiefly among the middle classes. The Shafi'i Madhhab has followers in Northern Africa, parts of Egypt, in Southern Arabia, and the Malayan Peninsula, and among the Muslims of Ceylon and the Bombay State in India.
During his life Imam Ash-Shafi'ee also suffered from political intrigues. For instance, after studying under Imam Malik in Madinah he was sent to fill an office Yemen, where he was accused of political involvement which resulted in his arrest. He was taken as prisoner to Harun ar-Rashid. The Khalifah, however, found him innocent and the Imam was honourably released. Imam Ash-Shafi'i died in the year 820CE in Egypt.
(s) Al-Jumu'ah Magazine, vol. 12, issue 2, Safar 1421H
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