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This book explores the lives of Abu Hanifah, Malik, al-ShAfi'i, and Ahmad b. Hanbal, the "four imams" who were the founders of the canonical schools of Islamic Law. It explores the areas of convergence and disagreement between these great scholars to reveal the unity of their basic principles as well as the multiplicity of their opinions and judgments. In doing so, it demonstrates Islam's inherent flexibility, which takes into account the different historical, social and geographical circumstances in which people find themselves. This allows the teachings of Islam to remain vital for every place and time.
The era of the four imams was a turning point in Islamic history. It was a time shaped by a firm commitment to the Islamic identity as well as an openness to change. The Islamic identity provided the cultural foundation and the basis for intellectual pursuits. At the same time, the era of the four imams was a time of accelerated social change, due to the number of new nations and cultures which had entered into Islam, often in their entirety. It was also a time of increased cultural interaction and cross-fertilization between the Muslim world and the nations that surrounded it. The codification of the four legal schools was a declaration of a new start, requiring dedication in following a tradition, a renewal of allegiance, and the affirmation of sound methodological principles.
The four imams were still very close to the era of the Prophet and his Companions. At the same time, they were on the verge of a new era of broadening political, civic, and cultural horizons.