Malik ibn Anas Al-Asbahi was born and died in Madinah. He is the founder of the Maliki school of thought. He played an important role in formulating early Islamic legal doctrines.
Imam Malik was a very devout, God-fearing person. He lived a life of self-denial and abstinence. He often fasted, sometimes about four days in the weak.
Imam Malik belonged to the tribe of Asbah of Yaman, a pure Arab stock. His father Abu Amir was a Companion of the Prophet, and was a religious scholar. Imam Malik also followed in his footsteps. At an early age he had acquired a full knowledge of the Qur'an, Hadith and other religious sciences. He studied with a number of religious scholars of Madinah. He received traditions from Sahl ibn Sa‘d, one of the last surviving companions. He also studied with Jafar As-Sadiq, the great scholar of the time. He knew Abu Hanifah, who had also studied in Madinah. He differed from Abu Hanifah on many important questions regarding the authenticity of the Traditions.
Imam Malik was considered to be the most learned man of his time. He was so well-versed in Islamic law that he came to be regarded as an authority in religious matters. His opinions were taken as ijma of Madinah. Imam Malik had composed the first systematic work on fiqh, that is why people flocked to him, from far and wide, to acquire knowledge from him.
Imam Malik’s method in al-Muwatta is that on each legal topic he first relates the relevant Hadith from the Prophet, if available, then from some Companion, and lastly the practice and opinions of the scholars of Madinah. Afterwards he states the views of his own school, that is, of the scholars of Madinah, saying that ‘so has been the practice since the times of the Prophet in which there is no difference among us.’ At times he even rejects a tradition coming from the Prophet in favour of the opinion of a Companion or a successor. For, to Imam Malik the agreed and established practice of Madinah was the ideal practice. People objected to this standpoint adopted by him. But he seems to be justified in his stand, for Madinah enjoyed the position of having an established practice coming down from the Prophet. While other centres were devoid of this distinction. As such those jurists who had settled in Kufa and Basra, for instance, were compelled to lay more emphasis on Hadith instead of insisting on its practice.
Imam Malik’s fame had spread far and wide. Once the great Caliph Harun Rashid came to Madinah, there he met Imam Malik and said to him: “O Malik I entreat as a favour that you will come every day to me and my two sons Amin and Mamun, and instruct us in traditional knowledge” Imam Malik replied, “O Khalifa, the science of hadith is of a dignified nature and instead of going to any person, requires that all should come to it.”
The Caliph agreed to send both his sons to Imam Malik, who seated them among his other scholars without any distinction.
According to Imam Malik, Sunnah does not purely consist of traditions from the Prophet. For him, Sunnah is sometimes based on the traditions from the Prophet, sometimes on the behaviour of the Companions and the Successors and occasionally on the practice prevalent among the people of Madinah. Thus, it was the established practice of the Muslims in Madinah which served as the channel to judge the real Sunnah.
Imam Malik often refers to this established practice as the consensus of the scholars of Madinah. Al-Shafii, a disciple of Imam Malik, has explained what is meant by Sunnah in this context. He says: “You establish the Sunnah on a two-fold basis: first, what conforms to the opinion of the Companions, and secondly, which involves no difference of opinion of the people.” This makes it clear that by the word sunnah Imam Malik means the Ijma (agreed practice) of the people of Madinah.
There were about thirty thousand Companions living at Madinah. They had seen the Prophet behave in all sorts of conditions. The Companions were followed by their Followers and they were followed in turn by their Followers. Thus, by the time of the third generation, the Sunnah of the Prophet had come to be established in the community.
It is obvious therefore that the established practice of the people of Madinah was far more reliable than an isolated tradition. The Companions and their Followers in general followed the traditions accompanied by practice.
However this does not mean that Imam Malik or his followers rejected all those traditions which were not accompanied by practice. Their stand was to follow the traditions that were practised generally, without discrediting other traditions. Imam Malik observed: “The hadith is there but we do not know what it really means.”
We must therefore refrain from concluding that Imam Malik and his followers gave preference to traditions from the Companions over traditions from the Prophet. It was in actual fact not a matter of preferences but it was a matter of the proper channel to approach the ideal sunnah. That is why Imam Malik considers the practice of Madinah as one of the strongest source of law.
Al-Muwatta (The Path Made Smooth) is the chief work of Imam Malik. This book is the basis of the Malikite school of jurisprudence. It deals not only with the sayings of the Prophet, but also with the opinions of several famous jurists of Madinah. It also contains Imam Malik’s personal views on various matters of Islamic law.
To Imam Malik the practice of Madinah is the primary source, and ijma (consensus) and ra‘y (opinion) is the secondary source.
Imam Malik has attempted to codify and systematise the customary law of Madinah. The Muwatta, being the earliest collection of Hadith and the first book of law, represents the earliest stage of literary development which was common to both fiqh and hadith.
The Maliki school of law is dominant in the Arab west and is also found in southern Egypt and Sudan.