We have mentioned earlier that the study of the Law is more important in Islam than the study of theology. This is true, yet it would appear to be contradicted by the statement below, attributed to Abū Ḥanīfa, that insight in matters of religion is "better" than insight in matters of knowledge. This is to be explained, however, by Abū Ḥanīfa's murji’ī tendency, his reluctance to condemn any professed Muslim--a tendency which led necessarily to a separation of faith and works.
Indeed, such a separation was demanded by the history of early Islam. The Community had had to meet bitter attacks by dissidents, and had also to take cognizance of the fact that within its own ranks there remained self-professed Muslims whose behavior was no credit to it, the Muhammadan Community.
Abū Ḥanīfa was of the party which maintained that if a man called himself a Muslim yet did not behave in an orthoprax or devout fashion, so long as there was any reasonable doubt that he had apostacized he should be left to the judgment of God. (The more extreme proponents of this view (murji’ism) went so far as to hold that anyone who called himself a Muslim was saved.) Thus faith and works are in a sense separable, and faith is prior. Abū Ḥanīfa defends this moderate murji’ism in the epistle to ‘Uthman al-Battī; it is perhaps his only genuine surviving writing. But it is most likely that the creedal statement known as the Fiqh Akbar I, the "Greater Fiqh," is also his. It is in the plural "we," indicating that it is a statement on which he and his school agree, and is intended for the guidance of other believers.
[paragraph continues] It affirms predestination (in Article 3) and disavows the position of the Partisans (Shī‘a) of ‘Alī (in Articles 4 and 5), as well as that of the Khārijīs (in Article 1), who held that those who committed a grave sin had apostacized and ceased to be Muslims; it rejects certain other positions. Such a creed, by a revered religious scholar and teacher, had powerful moral authority but nothing, for example, of the power to loose and to bind claimed by the general Councils which formulated the early Christian creeds.
The Fiqh Akbar I
Article 1. We do not consider anyone to be an infidel on account of sin; nor do we deny his faith.
Article 2. We enjoin what is just and prohibit what is evil.
Article 3. What reaches you could not possibly have missed you; and what misses you could not possibly have reached you.
Article 4. We disavow none of the Companions of the Apostle of Allah; nor do we adhere to any of them exclusively.
Article 5. We leave the question of ‘Uthmān and ‘Alī to Allah, who knoweth the secret and hidden things.
Article 6. Insight in matters of religion is better than in-sight in matters of knowledge and law.
Article 7. Difference of opinion in the Community is a token of divine mercy.
Article 8. Whoso believeth all that he is bound to believe, except that he says, I do not know whether Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them) do or do not belong to the Apostles, is an infidel.
Article 9. Whoso sayeth, I do not know whether Allah is in Heaven or on the earth, is an infidel.
Article 10. Whoso sayeth, I do not know (about) the punishment in the tomb, belongeth to the sect of the Jahmites, which goeth to perdition. 1
The Epistle of Abū Hanifa to ‘Uthmān al-Battī
From Abū Ḥanīfa to ‘Uthmān al-Battī. Peace be unto you. I extol to you God, than whom there is no other god. As for what follows, I counsel the fear of God and obedience to Him; God suffices as reckoner and compensator. Your letter has reached me, and I have understood your advice in it. You say that you were moved to write it by what I had written to preserve you in the good and to advise you. You mention that it has reached you that I am of the Murji’a, and that I hold a True Believer may err, and that this distresses you, and that there is really no excuse among friends of God for a thing which keeps one apart from God; that there is nothing by which one may be guided in what mere men create and innovate; that moral imperatives (al-amr) are only in what the Qur’ān brought and in what Muhammad, on whom be peace and God's blessing, preached and his Companions agreed upon until the people became divided; and that anything beyond this is human innovation and human creation.
Now understand what I am writing to you. Be prudent in your opinion, and take care lest Satan enter upon you; God preserve us both in obedience to Him--we ask the assistance of His mercy for us both. I would inform you that the people were idolators before God, be He Exalted, sent Muhammad, on whom be blessing and peace. Then He sent Muhammad to call them to Islam, and he called them to testify that there is no god but God, the Unique without associate, and to profess what he brought them from God.
He who entered Islam was a Believer, freed of idolatry, and his possessions and blood inviolate, while he was entitled to the rights of a Muslim and the protection of Muslims. One who neglected Islam when called to it became an infidel, free of faith, his possessions and blood lawful to Muslims, from whom nothing could be accepted except his entry
into Islam or his death, except for the People of the Book whom God explicitly exempted, who paid tribute-money.
Then the laws (al-farā’iḍ) were revealed after this for people who had believed (ahl al-taṡdīq), and adoption of them became a work of faith. Thus God says, "Those who have believed and do the good," and "He who believes in God and does good works," and similar expressions in the Qur’ān. Therefore a loss as to works does not involve a loss as to belief, and belief may be attained without any acts. If a loss as to works involved a loss as to belief, one would be taken by a loss in works from the name of faith and its preservation, just as people who lose belief are taken by its loss from the name of faith and its preservation and truth, and revert to their former state of idolatry. One of the ways by which this may be known is the disagreement between act and belief. People do not disagree in belief, and do not excel each other, but they excel each other in acts, and their laws (farā’iḍ) differ as well; yet the religion of the People of heaven and the religion of the prophets does not differ. Thus God says, "We have laid down for you as religion what was prescribed for Noah, and what We have revealed to thee, and what We prescribed for Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus." (Sūra 12:13)
Know that guidance in belief in God and His prophet is not like guidance in what is legislated as to acts. And how does this disturb you? You call a man a True Believer for what he believes, and God calls him so in His Book; and you call a man ignorant for what he does not know of the laws. He needs only to learn that of which he is ignorant. Shall one who errs in knowledge of God and His prophets be as one who errs about what people learn when they are already True Believers?
God has said in His teaching about the Law: "God explains it unto you for you may err. And God is the Knower of all things." (4:176) And: "If one of you errs, then another one of you will remember. (2:282) And: "I (Moses) did it then, when I was of those who err," (26:20) i.e., among the ignorant. The proof from the Book of God and the Sunna for believing this is a thing too clear and too obvious to pose
any problem for a man like yourself. Do you not say "a wicked believer," "a sinful believer," "a trespassing believer," "an uncouth believer," "a cruel believer"? Shall one be rightly guided in wickedness or trespass as he is rightly guided in faith?
Or take the speech of the sons of Jacob to our prophet their father, "Lo, thou art in thy old error." (12:95)--Do you think they meant "You are in your old infidelity"? God forbid that you should so understand it, who are learned in the Qur’ān. . . .
‘Alī was called "Commander of the True Believers," and ‘Umar as well--"Commander of the True Believers." Or would you say that means "Commander of those who obey all of the laws"? Again, ‘Alī referred to the Muslims of Syria with whom he was at war as "True Believers," in writings on the subject. Or were they rightly guided while he fought them? The Companions of the Messenger of God fought each other (in the civil wars) so both parties could not have been rightly guided in their acts. Who were the oppressors, according to you? By God, I know no sin People of the Qibla [those who face Mecca in prayer: Muslims] could commit greater than fighting and shedding the blood of the Companions of Muhammad, on whom be peace and blessing--so what do you call the two factions? They were not both rightly guided: if you assert that, you are guilty of an innovation [heresy]. If you assert they were both in error, you have innovated. If you say one was rightly guided, then what was the other? But if you say "God knows best," you have hit the mark. Understand well what I have written, and know that I say: The People of the Qibla are True Believers, and no loss as to act can remove them from Faith.
He who obeys God in all the laws, according to us, is of the People of Paradise. He who leaves both faith and works is an infidel, of the People of the Fire. But one who believes but is guilty of some breach of the laws is a believing sinner, and God will do as He wishes about him: punish him if He wills, and forgive him if He wills.
Also, I say about the disagreements of the Companions of the Messenger of God: God knows best. And I do not think
that this is any different from your own opinion about the People of the Qibla, for their affair is that of the Companions of the Messenger of God, a matter decided by Sunna and Fiqh. 2
179:1 Wensinck, trans., The Muslim Creed (Cambridge, 1932), pp 103, 104.
179:2 Kitāb al-’Alim wa al-Muta’allim (Cairo, 1949).