This issue of irja’ (literally: postponement) with respect to Imam Abu Hanifah – which has unforunately become a common talking point for the denigrators of the Imam – was discussed in great detail by Imam ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Laknawi in his al-Raf’ wa l-Takmil (pp. 149-81). When the term “irja” was applied to Imam Abu Hanifah, his shuyukh and his students, it was from two groups:
1. The first are the Mu’tazilah and the Khawarij who used this term for them because they actively opposed the Mu’tazilah and the Khawarij in their belief that a major sin takes one out of faith (iman). Imam al-Shahrastani (d. 548) wrote in his work al-Milal wa l-Nihal, “[Abu Hanifah] would oppose the Qadariyyah and the Mu‘tazilah who appeared in the early period, and the Mu‘tazilah would designate all who opposed them with regards to faith “murji’”.” (quoted in al-Raf’ p. 155) The Mu’tazili and Khariji belief is that a believing perpetrator of a major sin who does not repent will forever be punished in the Fire, and this belief is opposed by the Ahl al-Sunnah. Imam al-Shahrastani also said: “The men of the murji’ah [i.e. the famous personalities who believed in irja’], as transmitted, are: al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Sa‘id ibn Jubayr, Talq ibn Habib, ‘Amr ibn Murrah, Muharib ibn Dithar, Muqatil ibn Sulayman, Dharr, ‘Amr ibn Dharr, Hammad ibn Abi Sulayman, Abu Hanifah, Abu Yusuf, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan and Qudayd ibn Ja‘far. These are all imams of hadith. They did not declare the perpetrators of major sins disbelievers due to a major sin, and they did not make a judgement that they abide eternally in the Fire, as distinguished from the Khawarij and the Qadariyyah.” (quoted in al-Raf’ p. 164) Similarly al-Taftazani said in Sharh al-Maqasid: “It is well-known regarding the madhhab of the Mu‘tazilah that the perpetrator of a major sin without repentance will be made to stay eternally in the Fire, even if he lived for a hundred years upon faith and obedience. They do not distinguish between the major sin being one or many, and [whether] it occurred before the acts of obedience, after them or between them. They deem [the position of] uncertainty about punishment, and consigning the matter to Allah, forgiving if He wishes and punishing if He wishes, which is the madhhab of the people of truth, irja’, in the sense that it is postponement of the matter and uncertainty of punishment and reward. By this consideration, Abu Hanifah and others were placed amongst the murji’ah.” (quoted in al-Raf’ p. 158)
2. The second group who referred to Abu Hanifah and other fuqaha as “murji’” are the muhaddithun, like Imam al-Bukhari, who believed that works/deeds (‘amal) are included in the definition of iman and iman increases and decreases, so they referred to those who said works are not included in the definition of iman and that it does not increase and decrease in its essence “murji’ah.” Al-Laknawi offers a number of quotes from the books of Rijal to prove this, including the following: Al-‘Asqalani narrated in Lisan al-Mizan in the biography of Muhammad ibn al-Hasan: Ibn ‘Adi transmitted from Ishaq ibn Rahwayh: I heard Yahya ibn Adam say: Sharik would not permit the testimony of the murji’ah. Muhammad ibn al-Hasan bore testimony before him and he rejected his testimony. He was asked about this, and he said: “I do not permit the testimony of one who says prayers are not from faith!” (quoted in al-Raf’ pp. 162-3) This is clear in showing that the muhaddithun regarded those who believed works are not included in the definition of iman as murji’ah.
It is clear, therefore, that the reason Imam Abu Hanifah, his students and his teachers, were called “murji’ah” by the Mu’tazilah firstly and the muhaddithun later, is their belief in the following:
1. Works are not included in the definition of the essence of faith (iman)
2. Faith (iman) does not increase or decrease
3. The believing man who perpetrates a major sin and does not repent may be punished and he may be forgiven
The latter is the belief of all of the Ahl al-Sunnah. The first two is the belief of the ‘aqidah-scholars including Imam al-Tahawi (in his al-Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah), al-Maturidi, Abu Hanifah, and others, with the hadith-scholars disagreeing. However, this is only a semantic dispute as concluded by the verifying scholars, because although the muhaddithun include works in the definition of iman, if a man has no works and he is sinful, they still accept that he may be a believer (mu’min) which implies that the absence of works does not necessarily imply even according to them the absence of faith (iman). Therefore, works, in this sense, even according to the muhaddithin, are not included in iman, whereas confirmation with the heart (tasdiq bi l-qalb) is universally accepted as being fundamental to the nature and essence of iman.
Regarding the second point, it is as articulated by al-Tahawi, “Iman is confession with the tongue and confirmation with the heart, and that everything that was revealed by Allah in the Qur’an and everything that is authentic from the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) regarding the Shari’a and explanation [of the Qur’an] is all true. Iman is one and its adherents are in its essence the same, and the superiority [of some over others] is due to taqwa and opposing desires.” (al-‘Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah) Again, the dispute with the muhaddithun on this issue is a semantic dispute as all agree the believers vary, but Abu Hanifah, al-Tahawi and others say this variation is not in the essence of iman but in its branches, while others say this variation is in iman itself.
There is no doubt, therefore, that the murji’ah are two types: those of the Ahl al-Sunnah and those deviants who claimed that sins do not harm a believer and faith is sufficient for salvation, both of which Abu Hanifah rejected. This division of the murji’ah was explicitly mentioned by some of the scholars, including al-Shahrastani, Abu Shakur al-Salimi (d. 1077), and al-Birgivi (d. 981). It was even reported from Imam Abu Hanifah in his letter to ‘Uthman al-Batti.
Regarding a commonly quoted passage from Ghunyat al-Talibin by Imam ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani in which he includes the “Hanafiyya,” subscribers to the doctrine of irja’ amongst the deviant groups, al-Laknawi discusses this at great length on pages 166-81. He shows that at best this is a contradiction from al-Jilani (who is not infallible), since he refers to Imam Abu Hanifah as “Imam” and quotes his opinions as valid fiqhi opinions. Examples of this are given in page 169 of al-Raf’ wa l-Takmil. This shows al-Jilani did not believe Abu Hanifah was a deviant.
Then, al-Laknawi offers a number of responses to this text from Ghunyat al-Talibin, and he favours the following: Al-Shahrastani, while listing the murji’ah, included the sect called “Ghassaniyyah” which he describes as “the Ghassaniyyah, the companions of Ghassan ibn Aban al-Kufi who believed that faith is knowledge of Allah and His Messenger and acceptance of all that the Messenger brought, and that if a speaker were to say “I know that Allah made Hajj to the Ka‘bah obligatory but I do not know where the Ka‘bah is, and it may be in India, he is a believer.”” (quoted in al-Raf’ p. 153) In Ghunyat al-Talibin, al-Jilani uses almost the exact same description of the beliefs of “Hanafiyya” when describing their irja: “As for the Hanafiyyah, they are the companions of Abu Hanifah al-Nu‘man ibn Thabit. They believe that faith is knowledge and acceptance of Allah and His Messenger and all that he brought from His presence.” (quoted in al-Raf’ p. 167) Al-Jilani, while listing the groups of murji’ah, did not mention the Ghassaniyyah and it is known Ghassan would falsely attribute his madhhab to Abu Hanifah: Al-Shahrastani said, “It is strange that Ghassan would narrate his madhhab from Abu Hanifah and he counted him amongst the murji’ah. This is most probably a slander against him.” (quoted in al-Raf’ p. 155) Ibn Hajar al-Makki said something similar. Al-Jilani, therefore, by “Hanafiyyah” and the “companions of Abu Hanifah” most probably meant the Ghassaniyyah who claimed to follow Abu Hanifah. It is also well-known that many of those who followed Abu Hanifah in the peripheral matters of jurisprudence were Mu’tazili in creed or followed another deviant creed. Al-Jilani’s statement is therefore best understood not as referring to Abu Hanifah and his true companions/followers, but this deviant sect called the Ghassaniyyah who claimed to be followers of Abu Hanifah.
Abu Hanifah lived at a time when many new deviations were emerging, like Rafidism, Jahmism and Muqatilism, and he stood fast on the beliefs of the Ahl al-Sunnah, and condemned them in strong terms. For example, Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi narrates: al-Khallal reported to us: al-Hariri reported to us that ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-Nakha‘i narrated to them: Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Mukram narrated to us: Bishr ibn al-Walid narrated to us: I heard Abu Yusuf say: Abu Hanifah said: “Two groups of the worst of people are from Khurasan: the Jahmiyyah and the Mushabbihah (antropomorphists),” and he probably said [instead of “Mushabbihah”] “Muqatiliyyah (followers of Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 150 H)).” (Tarikh Baghdad 15:514-15) Dr. Bashshar ‘Awwad Ma‘ruf said: “Its isnad is sahih, its narrators are trustworthy (thiqat).”
With the same chain, al-Khatib narrates: al-Nakha‘i said: Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Affan narrated to us: Yahya ibn ‘Abd al-Hamid ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Himmani narrated to us from his father: I heard Abu Hanifah say: “Jahm ibn Safwan is a kafir.” (Tarikh Baghdad 15:515) Dr. Bashshar ‘Awwad Ma‘ruf said: “Its isnad is hasan.”
Imam Abu Hanifah’s opinion on Jahm is in fact quoted in the books of Rijal. Al-‘Asqalani said in Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (vol 10:281): “Muhammad ibn Sima’ah (who is thiqah according al-Saymari and saduq according to al-‘Asqalani in al-Taqrib) narrated from Abu Yusuf from Abu Hanifah that he said: ‘Jahm went overboard in negation until he said: He [i.e. Allah] is nothing, and Muqatil went overboard in affirmation until He deemed Allah to be like His creation.’” Al-‘Asqalani also quotes him saying: “Two disgusting opinions came to us from the east: Jahm the negator [of Allah’s attributes] and Muqatil the anthropomorphist.”
This clearly illustrates Imam Abu Hanifah’s greatness in the eyes of the scholars of Rijal, and the fact Imam Abu Hanifah stood against the distortions in ‘aqidah, of ta’til (negating Allah’s attributes) and tashbih (comparing Allah to creation) in this early period. Some of his expressions in ‘aqidah were recorded by his students, and the most famous statement on the creed of Abu Hanifah is Imam al-Tahawi’s Bayanu ‘Aqidati Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah which is probably the most well-known and accepted formulae on Muslim creed throughout the history of Sunni Islam.