|The fiqhi character of Shafi`i, in contrast to the majority of the jurists of the 2nd century AH, should not be viewed in a localized context. This is owing to the wide range of his educational background deriving from sources in Mecca, Medina, Yemen and Iraq; a fact that is in evidence throughout his writings. In his second trip to Iraq, Shafi`i set forth, for the first time, a codified and systematic fiqhi methodology which in its broad outlines was in tune with the conventional principles of the Partisans of Hadith. It was during the same period that he began the compilation of his book of al-Risalah on the science of usul, a work that was to assume its final shape in Egypt.
What gives distinction to the system of Shafi`i, as compared with the methodologies of his predecessors such as Abu Hanifah and Malik, is his implacable adherence to Hadith as a veritable mirror of the sunnah and the focal point of fiqhi deliberation. This emphasis is such that limits reference to the Qur’an, a fact that has prompted some to consider his system of fiqh as hadith-centered. In his approach to the Qur’an, Shafi`i does not give primacy to the general sense of the text over the specificity of a particular tradition, i.e. he adduces the particular sense of a hadith as basis for justifying his interpretation of the Qur’anic text. His belief in the employment of prophetic sunnah as an exegetical tool for the understanding of the outward sense of the Qur’an is one that imposes de facto restrictions on the use of the Qur’anic text for the interpretation of hadiths. Shafi`i takes the notion of takhsis (specificity) to such extent that by resorting to a particular prophetic tradition in his interpretation of the Verse of Tasmiyah (the basmala: the formula-prayer, “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”) (An`am 6:121) he sets aside the immediate sense of the text and considers the recitation of the formula as unnecessary at the time of slaughtering of an animal.
Since Shafi`i’s fiqhi system is not attached to a particular locality the issue of divergence of hadiths (ikhtilaf al-hadith) becomes of crucial importance to him. Shafi`i is well known for his attempts at reconciliation of conflicting hadiths. He deals with the issue of harmonization of divergent hadiths in brief outline in his al-Risalah and in more detail in his Ikhtilaf al-hadith. In his approach to the hadiths of the Companions and Successors, Shafi`i provides a limited definition of sunnah and thus only accords the status of sunnah to marfu` hadiths (traditions that are traced back to the Holy Prophet (PBUH), regardless of the completion or otherwise of the chains of transmission). He pours scorn on his predecessors, such as Malik and Awza`i, for their adherence to the Companions or for giving precedence to their remarks against over marfu` traditions, a criticism to which he also subjects the sirah of the Shaykhayn. As regards the issue of ijma`, once again, his lack of commitment to the tradition of a particular region prompts him to reject the type of consensus adduced by the Medinese school and considers the only legitimate type of ijma` in matters of fiqh as one reached by the entire Muslim community. In spite of his belief in the impossibility of ijma` being reached against the prophetic sunnah, Shafi`i considered as admissible a consensus with regard to the interpretation of a fiqhi hadith or in the refutation of its outward meaning in favour of its interpreted (mu’awwal) version.
As regards Shafi`i’s view on ijtihad and qiyas, it should be noted that while he believed in the legitimacy of qiyas, he rejected all fiqhi and analogical ra’ys. He also viewed permissible ijtihad to be tantamount to qiyas. A broad look at his fiqhi theory would indicate qiyas as being at the lowest level of his hierarchy of fiqhi methods of reasoning, only to be used as a last resort in cases of absence of textual evidence. However, in reality, Shafi`i came to be known as much for his practice of qiyas as Abu Hanifah for his employment of ra’y. He was also adamant in his animosity toward istihsan, since he believed it to be only prompted by personal preference in abandoning the method of analogy. His censure of istihsan is well reflected in his famous statement that “whoever engages in istihsan has, in fact, attempted his hands at religious legislation (tashri`)”.