Hanbali is the most fundamentalist of the main schools of Sunni Islamic law. These approaches to law, also known as Sharia, all accept the Qur’an and hadith as primary sources of doctrine and practice. Hanbali differs from schools such as Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i in what secondary sources are accepted and to what extent those sources matter. Hanbali is considered the most traditional and rigid of the four main schools.
Most Muslim approaches to Sharia accept the idea of analogy—known in Islam as qiyas—which takes established rulings and applies them to new topics or situations. This is not so with the Hanbali interpretation. The initial Hanbali views on Sharia rejected the use of analogy, as well as judicial discretion. No credence was given to local customs—the law was the law. Early Hanbali scholars also denied the validity of any consensus established after the life of Muhammad’s companions. Later Hanbali jurists softened this stance, coming much closer to the Shafi’i approach to matters of analogy and consensus.
That movement toward flexibility and discretion was seen as unacceptable to some Sunni Muslims. Combined with angst over European dominance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the resulting disagreement formed a movement within Hanbali known as Wahhabi. This, in turn, inspired a further subsect known as Salafi. A minority of Salafi Muslims believe in the use of active, aggressive violence against non-Muslims. This fractional slice of Islam is the school of choice for most of the world’s most infamous terror groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda.
Hanbali is most common in Saudi Arabia—primary in the form of state-sponsored Salafi—and in portions of the nearby Middle East. This connection to Saudi Arabian wealth and power is the primary reason Salafi, itself a subset of both Wahhabi and Hanbali, exerts an outsized influence on the world stage.