Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris ibn Al-Abbas ibn Uthman Shafi'i RA was a descendant of the Quraysh tribe. Among the four Grand Mujtahideen Imams of Fiqh, he is the only Imam who is related to Rasulullah SAW. His ancestry joins Rasulullah SAW at Abd Manaf. It has been narrated that his ancestor, Shafi'i RA was the flag bearer of the Banu Hashim who were then against the Muslims during the Battle of Badr. After the battle, he was taken prisoner and released after ransom. He thereafter embraced Islam. Another narration collects that Shafi'i RA met the Prophet SAW as a youngster and became a Muslim. In this second narration, it was Shafi'i RA's father, Saa'ib who was the flag bearer described.
Imam Shafi'i RA was born in Ghazza / Asqalan - a place two stages from Jerusalem, in Syria. He was born in Rajab 150 AH (765 AD). At the age of two years, his parents moved to Makkah and made it their home. He lost his father during infancy and was raised by his mother under very poor circumstances. Imam Shafi'i RA's mother was a Yemeni, and she descended from the famous Bani Azd tribe of Yemen.
Imam Shafi'i RA completed Hifz (the memorisation) of the Qur'an at the tender age of seven years. Muslim bin Khalid RA who had noticed his remarkable intelligence, advised him to study Fiqh. He spent three years with the Shaykh until the age of thirteen. By that age, Imam Shafi'i RA had already memorised the Kitab-ul-Muwatta of Imam Malik RA. He also spent a significant time among the Bedouins outside Makkah, to acquire good knowledge and proficiency of the Arabic language. During his time in learning Arabic literature and poetry, one day at Mina - he heard a voice behind him saying: "Alayka bil Fiqh" ("Grasp the Fiqh").
At the age of fifteen years, with the permission of his Shaykh - Muslim ibn Khalid Zanji RA, who was then the Mufti of Makkah, Imam Shafi'i RA was given Ijazat (permission) to issue Fatwas, and started doing so. At the age of twenty years (170 AH / 785 AD), Imam Shafi'i RA went to Madinah and became a student of Imam Malik RA. His teacher was greatly impressed with the young student who had already memorised the Muwatta.
Imam Malik RA said:
“No scholar, more brilliant than Muhammad ibn Idris Shafi’i ever came to me as a pupil.”
Imam Shafi'i RA stayed with Imam Malik RA for eight years, and thereafter returned to Makkah. He also came into contact with other learned men. There were 81 Shaykhs - from all of whom Imam Shafi'i RA acquired the knowledge of the Qur'an, Hadith and Sunnah. In Makkah his tutor was Sufyan bin Ainiyyah RA.
Imam Shafi'i RA once mentioned about Imam Malik RA and Imam Sufyan RA:
"Had it not been for Imam Malik (RA) and Sufyan (RA), the Ilm (Knowledge) would not have remained in Hijaz."
In the year 184 AH / 799 AD, Imam Shafi'i RA was arrested and taken to Baghdad to appear before the Caliph Harun Ar-Rashid RA on "trumped up" charges of treason. Imam Muhammad RA whom he met in 184 AH, who was the state Qadhi of Baghdad and student of Imam Abu Hanifah RA, helped him, and recommended so that he be discharged. Imam Shafi'i RA was then 34 years old. Imam Shafi'i RA then remained in Baghdad as a student of Imam Muhammad RA for over three years to add further to his knowledge of Islamic Law. Imam Shafi’I RA continued future visits to the Imam and spent a total of ten years with Imam Muhammad RA.
Imam Shafi’i RA mentioned about Imam Muhammad RA:
“I never came across a greater ‘Aalim of Kitabullah (The Qur’an) than Imam Muhammad (RA).”
Imam Muhammad RA described about Imam Shafi’i RA:
“The door of Fiqh was shut to the people. Allah opened it because of Shafi’i.”
Later, Imam Shafi'i RA returned to Makkah where he stayed for nine years. In Makkah, he delivered lectures on Islamic Law. It was during this period that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal RA came into contact with Imam Shafi'i RA. In 199 AH he went to Egypt where he was received with much honour and respect. He remained here until he passed away. Imam Shafi'i RA died in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday evening after Maghrib Solat, on the 29th of Rajab, 204 AH (20th January, 820 AD) after a short illness. He was 53 or 54 years of age.
Imam Shafi'i RA was the author of over one hundred books, the most important of which is the Kitaab-ul-Umm. It contains the rulings prescribed by Imam Shafi'i RA on all subjects of Islamic Law. Imam Shafi'i RA left behind a large number of dedicated students in Makkah, Baghdad and Egypt. The Shafi'i School of Jurisprudence emerged from these students who propagated the injunctions, rulings and views of the Imam through their writings and Da'wah.
In terms of piety, it has been preserved in narrations about our pious predecessors that Imam Shafi'i RA had never committed any major sin, nor spoken a lie, nor had swallowed any unlawful morsel of food throughout his entire life. Imam Shafi'i RA also made it incumbent upon him to always perform the Jumma congregation on Fridays only after having performed Sunnat Ghusl (bath), without fail. Imam Shafi'i RA title is Naasirus Sunnah. He was honoured as Al-Imamul Mujaddid in the fact that he is the Mujaddid of the second century of Islam. Imam Shafi'i RA is also known to be an extremely generous personality who on numerous occasions gave away all he possessed to the poor and needy.
May Allah SWT provide Imam Shafi'i RA with a lofty position in Paradise. Ameen.