Hanafi is the largest of several interpretations of Islamic law, also known as Sharia. Sunni Islam is the largest denomination of Muslims worldwide. Within Sunni itself are several different approaches. These various schools of law are divided on how to best apply the principles of Islam. They disagree on what methods are appropriate for making decisions where religious texts offer no explicit instruction. The largest of these schools of law is Hanafi, which represents a plurality of Sunni Islam. This is not a majority—while the most popular, Hanafi represents only about one third of all Muslims.
The other three major schools of Islamic law are Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Hanafi is considered more flexible than other approaches to Sharia. The main distinction is its acceptance of judicial discretion. In other words, Hanbali approves of the idea that a single Islamic judge may, based on the particulars of a case, make a definitive ruling based on his personal judgment. Hanbali still relies on other Islamic sources, most importantly the Qur’an and the hadith.
Within Islam, Hanafi is noted—and criticized—for being the earliest school to apply qiyas, or reasoned legal deduction, in applying Sharia. This principle presumes that human reasoning and human insight can explain how Allah intends laws to be applied in new or changing circumstances. Most other schools of Muslim law, particularly Shafi’i and Hanbali, either object to this suggestion or hold it in cautious reserve.
In one sense, Hanafi could be considered the newest of the four schools, having only been formally codified in the eleventh century. However, the ideals espoused in Hanafi were common in hadiths connected to Ali, the fourth Islamic leader after Muhammad.
Hanafi is most common in northwest Asia, western Egypt, and Turkey.