Dawud bin Ali bin Khalaf al-Zahiri

Dawud bin Ali bin Khalaf al-Zahiri |داود بن علي الظاهري


Dawud bin Ali bin Khalaf al-Zahiri (815–883/4 CE) was a Muslim scholar of Islamic law during the Islamic Golden Age, specializing in the fields of Hermeneutics, Biographical evaluation, and historiography. He is widely regarded as the founder of the Zahiri school of thought, the fifth school of thought followed by Sunnis Muslims to this day, though he never viewed himself as such, nor do the followers of the school.

He was a celebrated, if not controversial, figure during his time, being referred to in Muslim historical texts as “the scholar of the era.”

Dawud al-Zahiri

  • Born: c. 815 Kufa
  • Died:             c. 883 or 884 (age approx. 68) Baghdad
  • Era: Islamic Golden Age
  • Region: Mesopotamia
  • School: Islamic philosophy
  • Main interests: Jurisprudence
  • Notable ideas: Zahirism

Biography|Early life

al-Zahiri’s exact place of birth is not entirely clear to historians. He has most commonly been attributed to the Iranian city of Isfahan, often being referred to as “Dawud al-Isfahani.” Ibn Hazm, Al-Dhahabi, Christopher Melchert and others held that this attribution was due to the fact that al-Zahiri’s mother was a native of Isfahan, and that he was actually of Iraqi origins, having been born in the city of Kufa.

Ignác Goldziher agreed that al-Zahiri was born in Kufa, but attributed the confusion regarding his place of birth due to his father’s role in the civil service of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun in Kashan, a smaller city near Isfahan.


During his formative years, al-Zahiri relocated from Kufa to Baghdad and studied prophetic tradition and Qur’anic exegesis with a number of notable scholars during the time, including Abu Thawr, Yahya ibn Ma’in, and Ahmad bin Hanbal. His study under renowned figures of traditionalist theology was in contrast to the views of his father, who was a follower of the less orthodox Hanafi school. Indian reformist Chiragh Ali has suggested that Zahiri’s school was, like Ibn Hanbal’s, actually a direct reaction to the Hanafi system.

Toward the end of his education, al-Zahiri traveled to Nishapur in Greater Khorasan in order to complete his studies with Ishaq Ibn Rahwayh, at the time considered a champion of the traditionalist Sunni philosophy. Ibn al-Jawzi noted that when studying with Ibn Rahwayh, considered one of the most knowledgeable scholars in Muslim history, al-Zahiri was willing to debate with Ibn Rahwayh on religious topics, something no one else had ever dared to do. Rahwayh criticized Al-Shafi‘i during a lesson; a debate ensued in which Zahiri alleged that Rahwayh didn’t understand al-Shafi’i’s point on the topic of discussion, though Ibn Hanbal, who was physically present for the debate, declared Rahwayh to be the winner.

al-Zahiri was initially a follower of Al-Shafi‘i in jurisprudence, later branching off in terms of his principles, likely due to the influence of Ibn Rahwayh.


After completing his studies in Nishapur, al-Zahiri returned to Baghdad and began delivering his own lessons. While historians differ regarding his exact number of students, it is agreed that his following was large, with most estimates ranging between four to five hundred students who would regularly attend his Majlis. His reputation spread outside of Baghdad, and even high-level scholars from elsewhere in the Muslim world began seeking al-Zahiri’s advice on religious topics of study.

While his views were not universally accepted in his time, no attempts were made by his contemporaries to prevent him from granting religious verdicts, nor were they opposed to his teaching position. His most well-known students were his son Muhammad bin Dawud al-Zahiri, Abdullah, the son of Ibn Hanbal, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Niftawayh and Ruwaym. Zahiri was also the teacher of early jurist Abd Allah al-Qaysi, who was responsible for spreading the Zahirite school in Al-Andalus. 


al-Zahiri died during the month of Ramadan in Baghdad, where he was buried. The exact year in which he died according to the Gregorian calendar is a matter of some dispute, with historians having stated both 883 CE and 884 CE.


Views| Creed

In terms of theology, al-Zahiri was described by Ibn Taymiyyah as having been upon the orthodox Athari creed, affirming the attributes of God without delving into their fundamental nature. Al-Shahrastani, a 12th century historian of religions, grouped al-Zahiri along with Malik bin Anas, Ibn Hanbal and Sufyan al-Thawri as early Sunni figures who rejected both esoteric and anthropotheistic interpretations of God, and both Ibn Taymiyyah and al-Shahrastani considered al-Zahiri and his students, along with Malik, Ibn Hanbal al-Thawri, Abu Thawr, Al-Mawardi and al-Shafi’i and their students to be the people of the hadith, as opposed to the people of ra’y.

This creed of not delving into the fundamental nature of the texts likely affected al-Zahiri’s views on literalism as well. While all the major figures of Islam were united upon the Qur’an and Sunnah being the foremost sources of law, al-Zahiri held that these two sources must also be taken at the literal meanings and only applied in the particular circumstances which they described.

Analogical reasoning

al-Zahiri rejected Qiyas, otherwise known as analogical reasoning, as a method of deducing rulings in jurisprudence, regarding it as a form of bid’ah, or addition to Islam which the prophet Muhammad had not allowed. There are conflicting views regarding al-Zahiri’s position when the specific causality of a command or prohibition within the Qur’an or prophetic example was stated, due to different historians recording opposing statements. Some take the view that al-Zahiri restricted the ruling to the incident or condition in which the causality arose, seeing that the causality provides a concrete law; others take the view that he would instead form a general principle in the event of a stated causality.


al-Zahiri considered Ijma, or religiously binding consensus, to consist of the consensus of the prophet Muhammad’s direct companions only, excluding all other generations after them from this definition. In this matter, al-Zahiri was actually in agreement with Ibn Hanbal and Abu Hanifa, figureheads of two other prominent Sunni schools of thought.

Nature of the Qur’an

While al-Zahiri at one time studied Hadith studies under Ibn Hanbal, he was later barred from study due to a dispute regarding the nature of the Qur’an; al-Zahiri stated that the Qur’an was “muhdath,” or recently occurring, a stance of which Ibn Hanbal strongly disapproved. Even before that time, Ibn Hanbal had actually cut off contact with anyone who would study with or consult Zahiri regarding religious matters, a habit Ibn Hanbal started after witnessing Zahiri’s defense of al-Shafi’i against Rahwayh.

The rumor regarding Zahiri’s statement about the Qur’an only added more fuel to the fire. Syrian historian Ibn Taymiyyah said that the dispute was semantic in nature, arising from a confusion of al-Zahiri’s intended meaning – that God is existent without peers – and the intended meaning of the Jahmites and Mu’tazila – that the Qur’an was created.

Thus al-Zahiri, Ibn Hanbal, al-Shafi’i, Ibn Rahwayh, al-Tabari, Malik ibn Anas, Sufyan al-Thawri, Abd al-Rahman al-Awza’i, Abū Ḥanīfa, Ibn Khuzaymah, Abdullah ibn Mubarak, Al-Darimi and Muhammad al-Bukhari – described by Ibn Taymiyyah as the leading figures of Islam at the time – all agreed that the Qur’an was uncreated, but a semantic misunderstanding arose when al-Zahiri, al-Bukhari, Muslim bin al-Hajjaj and others used the phrase “recently occurring” to establish that God and the Qur’an, believed by Muslims to be the literal speech of God, are not the same thing, but rather than God’s speech is an attribute.

Modern-day scholarship has suggested, in light of the weakness in the chains of narration connecting the phrase “the Qur’an is recently occurring” to al-Zahiri that al-Zahiri may have never made such a statement or held such a belief at all.

Due to al-Zahiri’s denial of analogical reasoning and blind following – cornerstones in the other main Sunni schools of thought – the students of those schools may have forged the statement and attributed it to al-Zahiri as a means of pushing the common people away from him and his school of thought. Abu Ubaida further supported his point by noting that al-Zahiri and his students were actually severer in their opposition to the Mu’tazila and their belief that the Qur’an was created than Ibn Hanbal was, using harsh language in their written responses to such beliefs.


al-Zahiri held the view than in in-kind exchanges of goods, the forbidden type of usury applies to only six commodities specified by the prophet Muhammad: gold, silver, wheat, barley, dates and salt. Because al-Zahiri rejected the use of analogical reasoning in jurisprudence, he disagreed with the majority view that the prohibition on excess gain in in-kind exchanges of all commodities, and did not consider such gains to be a form of interest.

Had the prophet Muhammad intended to include commodities other than the above six, he could have done so; because he specified that usury was only prohibited in these six commodities and that Muslims were free to deal in other commodities as they liked, al-Zahiri saw no basis for making an analogy to any other commodities.

Female Dress

According to al-Shawkani, al-Zahiri regarded the Muslim face veil to be recommended rather than obligatory, seeing that a woman’s face could be uncovered in public but that all other body parts must be covered. This was the position of Ibn Hanbal as well.


If a Muslim begins traveling while fasting during the month of Ramadan, al-Zahiri saw that the individual should break their fast on the day which they started their journey, a view which Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Rahwayh agreed. This was due to the Qur’anic verse allowing the traveler to skip the Ramadan fast and make it up when they complete their journey. If a Muslim did fast while traveling, they would still have to make up the days the skipped according to al-Zahiri’s view, as the verse wasn’t merely an allowance for breaking the fast, but a command.

Most Muslims shorten the length of their prayers while traveling as well. This “traveling” by which the Muslim shortens his prayers and breaks the fast is a topic of discussion among jurists as to its distance and duration. al-Zahiri saw that any form of traveling, regardless of distance or duration, allowed the individual to shorten their prayers.


al-Zahiri was known as being a prolific author, and Persian historian Ibn al-Nadim was able to personally record the names of at least 157 of al-Zahiri’s written works, the majority on topics within Islamic studies. He was also considered to be the first person to have written a biography of his former teacher, al-Shafi’i. Melchert cites Ibn al-Nadim and Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr for his claim that Zahiri’s biography of Shafi’i was the not just the first biography about Shafi’i but the first major biography of any Muslim jurist ever written. None of these works have survived to the modern era in their entirety.

Ibn al-Nadim also mentions that after al-Shafi’i’s al-Risala, Ibn Hanbal and al-Zahiri were the next major Sunni figures to author works on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, with al-Zahiri producing a number of works on topics including his rejection of blindly following clergymen, the difference between general and specific verses of the Qur’an, the difference between succinct and detailed commands in the religion, and his views on and experiences with his former teacher, al-Shafi’i.

Modern scholarship has pieced together chapter headings for al-Zahiri’s work on juristic principles from other early works in the following order: binding consensus, invalidity of blindly following clergy, invalidity of analogical reason, traditions transmitted by single authorities, traditions which provide certainty, incontrovertible proof, particular vs. general scriptural texts and specified vs. unspecified texts.

The chapters – and perhaps even the information contained therein – have primarily been preserved by the work of Fatimid writer Qadi al-Nu’man, in addition to passages in Al-Muhalla of Sunni jurist Ibn Hazm, an adherent of al-Zahiri’s legal school.

Contemporary evaluation

Although al-Zahiri’s religious views were and are considered controversial, his character and religious piety carry universal acclaim. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Al-Suyuti, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, al-Dhahabi, Al-Nawawi and al-Tabari all attested to his morality, humility and personal ethics.

Sunni view

While al-Zahiri’s school is not as numerous today as the other four major schools of Sunni thought, the Zahiri, or “Dawudi” school as they were known in Islam’s early stages, was once a major school and encompassed Mesopotamia, the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands, North Africa and Southern Iran. Even his contemporary critics conceded to his intellect and level of knowledge, even while rejecting his beliefs.

He has been described as “the scholar of the era” by al-Dhahabi, and the hierarchy of religious knowledge in Baghdad was considered to have ended with al-Zahiri at the top. When al-Tabari was asked regarding the books of Ibn Qutaybah, he answered that Ibn Qutaybah’s work was “nothing,” and recommended the books of the “people of jurisprudence,” mentioning al-Shafi’i and al-Zahiri by name, then “their contemporaries.”

Members of other schools have often criticized al-Zahiri for his rejection of analogical reasoning. The early followers of al-Shafi’i in general held negative views of their former classmate, and from the followers of the Shafi’ite school Al-Juwayni in particular was harsh upon al-Zahiri himself. al-Dhahabi, however, defended al-Zahiri and his followers, stating that just as al-Juwayni had arrived to his views by the process of scholarly discourse, so had al-Zahiri.

Likewise, Ibn al-Salah also defended the legitimacy of al-Zahiris views and his school, listing a number of figures from the other Sunni schools of thought who considered al-Zahiri’s opinions in scholarly discourse. 

Shi’ite view

Shi’ites have taken a dimmer view of al-Zahiri and his school. In the 1970s, Twelver Shi’ite scholar Abdul Kareem Mushtaq accused al-Zahiri of having held anthropotheistic beliefs regarding God, citing Sunni historian al-Shahrastani as his source. Nearly four decades later, the section of al-Shahrastani’s work was translated into English, demonstrating that al-Shahrastani had actually stated that al-Zahiri didn’t hold anthropotheistic beliefs. al-Shahrastani had stated:

“As for Aĥmad ibn Ĥanbal, Dāwūd ibn `Alī al-Işfahānī and a group of Imāms from the predecessors, they took the methodological course of the early predecessors from the people of narrations—such as Mālik ibn Anas and Muqātil ibn Sulaymān—and followed the safe path.

They said: ‘We believe in whatever is mentioned in the Book and the Sunna, and we do not come to grips with the interpretation; after we certainly know that Allāh, the Powerful and Exalted, does not resemble anything from the creation and that all what is portrayed in imagination is created and foreordained.’

And they used to guard themselves from anthropomorphism to such a degree, that they said: ‘Whosoever moved his hand during the recitation of His statement: ‘…I created with My hands?’ or pointed with his two fingers during his narration: ‘The heart of the believer is between two fingers of the Merciful,’ his hand should be cut and his two fingers removed.”

Ismaili Shi’ites have, perhaps, been more accurate in that for which they criticized al-Zahiri. al-Nu’man was particularly critical of al-Zahiri for rejecting analogical reason yet at the same time accepting inference as a valid means of logical deduction, a position for which he also criticized al-Zahiri’s son and school in general.

Mu’tazilite view

Being steeped in esoteric philosophy, the Mu’tazila were quite hostile towards al-Zahiri and his school. Although some prominent Mu’tazilite figures such as al-Nazzam denied the validity of analogical reasoning as al-Zahiri did, they also denied literalism and the validity of consensus, and most of them found al-Zahiri’s ideas to be ridiculous.