بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الحمد لله وحده و الصلاة و السلام على من لا نبي بعده و على آله و أصحابه أجمعين
Sometimes back I found a fellow referring to an alleged statement of Imam Abu Hanifa. Although he did not derive any conclusions from it, it really alarmed me because there is a potential of gross misuse of the statement as recorded in the work usually cited.
In this time of tribulation (fitna) there are people -liberals and the secular- who never cease to twist the meanings of the Qur’an according to whims and wishes and to restrict the scope of countless hadith narrations to seventh century Arabia. To these people statements of scholars and mutahid imams mean nothing but at the same time if somehow they can use a statement attributed to any of great early scholars they forget everything else and take any such statement as ultimate evidence as if it is a revelation from Allah. This attitude speaks a lot of their objectives and objectivity. And what if the statement they use is not authentic to begin with?
The alleged narration:
The alleged statement goes as;
قال أَبُو حنيفة: لو أدركني رسول الله صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وأدركته لأخذ بكثير من قولي
Below is the reproduction of the translation given in the article by Muhammad Altaf Hussain Ahangar titled "Iqbal and Hadith."
Khatib Baghadadi in his history, with reference to Yusuf Ibn Isbat, writes:
Abu Hanifa used to say that if the Prophet (s.a.w) would have found me and I could have found him (i.e. both would have lived at the same time), then He [the Prophet (s.a.w)] would have adopted many of his (Abu Hanifa’s) thoughts. Religion is not anything else except the good and fine opinion.
Let's find out and analyze the truth of these words;
What works actually record this narration?
Authenticity of the Narration:
Now we discuss the most important issue i.e. the authenticity of this report.
1- The rules of narration (riwayah) check:
Wherever the report is given with a chain of narrator, we find that it comes through Yusuf bin Asbat (not "Isbat"). And this narrator itself is not truly reliable.
Ibn Abi Hatim said, "He is not to be sought evidence with."
And Imam Bukhari said, "He had buried his books, and did not narrate the narrations the way they were written." i.e. he mixed the things up
So these facts about the person attributing the words to Imam Abu Hanifah make the case of the narration quite weak. The following details will further add to the clarity on the evident dubious nature of the narration.
2- The rational rule (dirayah) check:
Imam al-Hafiz Muhibuddin Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Mahmud aka Ibn al-Najjar al-Baghdadi (d. 643 A.H.) actually showed that what the narration says is not tenable rationally. He first reproduces the narration and then writes;
"It is narrated from Abu Hanifa (ra) and all his fellows rule accordingly as to what is narrated from al-Abbas (ra) that when the Prophet (pbuh) gave the sermon, he in a lengthy report said, 'Verily Makkah is one the sanctuaries of Allah (where nothing can be harmed)" Abbas (ra) said, "Except idhkhir (a kind of grass), O Messenger of Allah", so the Prophet (saaw) said, ""Except idhkhir " Abu Hanifa said regarding it, 'The Prophet (saaw) himself intended to make this exception (already), Abbas (just) uttered it before him." Thus Abu Hanifa did not interpret it in a way making the Prophet (saaw) follow the opinion of Abbas, so how could he (speak of to) make him follow his own opinion?"
Simply put, there is a narration in which apparently the prophet (pbuh) said something after his uncle and a great companion Abbas (ra) had spoken of it, yet Abu Hanifa said the Prophet (pbuh) has already decided to say it. It’s only that Abbas (ra) in that moment uttered it before him i.e. the Prophet (pbuh) did not follow the opinion of Abbas (ra). The argument is, when he did take the pain to interpret the narration against the apparent meanings just to avoid the notion of Prophet (pbuh) following someone else opinion albeit of a great companion, how could then he say that Prophet (pbuh) would ever need to follow his own opinion?
On the reality of the alleged narration:
An Egyptian scholar Shaykh Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari (d. 1371 A.H.) has discussed the narration in detail in his dedicated work on the narrations about Imam Abu Hanifa in "Tarikh Baghdad" of al-Khatib.
Following detail gives a fair proof on the origins of the narration.
Imam Mofiq bin Ahmad al-Makki (d. 568 A.H.) narrated the following words Imam Abu Hanifa on authority of Yusuf bin Khalid;
لو أدركني البتي لترك كثير من قوله
"If al-Batti would have found me, he would have left many of his opinions (in favor of mine)."
Abu al-Mo'id Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Khwarazmi (d. 665 A.H.) narrates it with the following words;
لو أن البتي رآني لأخذ بكثير من أقوالي
"If al-Batti would have found me he would have adopted many of my sayings."
al-Batti here refers to a Kufan scholar who later settled in Basra, Usman bin Muslim al-Batti (d. 143 A.H.)
Shaykh al-Kawthari, following al-Mo'id al-Khwarazmi, argues that it is actually a scribal error or confusion of the narrator that made the narration as it is now recorded in Tarikh al-Baghdad etc.. In the narration al-Batti ( البتي) first became al-Nabi (النبي). This is easy to understand as the skeleton of both the words is same and the difference is only of the dots (nuqaat). Then seemingly undergoing the narration-by-meaning phenomenon the word النبي was replaced by رسول الله and thereafter understandably the words صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ added to it.
This is no far-fetched an assertion, in fact we have a categorical example like it, in totally a different context, recorded in Tarikh Baghdad itself where it is stated that a narrator confused the words رأيت البتي (I saw al-Batti) and put them as رأيت النبي (I saw the Prophet).
In fact this seems to be too general a mistake and confusion. Another example of the same is quoted by Al-Qifti (d. 646 A.H.)
These examples show it was quite common for people to mix the two in both writing and reading.
So the reasonable conclusion is that the actual narration is misconstrued, apparently by, Yusuf bin Asbat who often did such things due to inadvertence and ignorance. Here please recall Imam Bukhari's statement about him quoted above.
The phrase, "Religion is nothing but fine opinion":
Coming to the last phrase, "Religion is not anything else except the good and fine opinion", Shaykh al-Kawthari is of the opinion that this too involves confusion due a scribal error. He argues that the Arabic wording هل الدين إلا الرأي الحسن was originally هل أرى إلا الرأي الحسن i.e. what would he opine except according to the good opinion.He supports this by the fact that al-Batti too like Abu Hanifa was known for making extensive ijtihad and as as such known to be among Ahl al-Ra'i.
Having looked into various old manuscripts myself I find the explanation quite plausible but it is a bit lacking in external independent support. However, even if accepted as such the phrase still does not signify more than the fact that when a matter is not resolved directly through Qur'an, Sunnah or the verdicts of the companions and it comes down to the opinions of the scholars then among those opinions the religious verdict is on nothing but the best of those opinions.
The principle of Imam Abu Hanifa:
Here I must quote the principle of Imam Abu Hanifa about the order of precedence among the the sources of shariah.
ما جاء عن الله تعالى فعلى الرأس والعينين وما جاء عن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم فسمعا وطاعة وما جاء عن الصحابة رضي الله عنهم تخيرنا من أقوالهم ولم نخرج عنهم وما جاء عن التابعين فهم رجال ونحن رجال
"What comes to us (directly) from the Allah the Almighty (i.e. in the Qur'an) is held the most supreme by us, and what reaches us from the Messenger of Allah -peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- we (simply) listen and obey, and what reaches from the Companions -Allah be pleased with them- we chose the best from their opinions and do not leave them all (i.e. we stick to one of their opinions) and what comes to us from the opinions of the Followers (tabi'un), so they are men like us."
This shows the truth of the above explanation for he clearly stated that he could not think of leaving the opinions of the Companions even let alone leaving a hadith or thinking that Prophet (saaw) would ever -God forbid- follow his opinion. But yes he, being himself a Follower (tabi'i) could contend with another of the same category and expect him to follow his opinion once he convinced him of its fineness.
And Indeed Allah knows the best!
 Tarikh al-Baghdad wa Ziyuluhu, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah, Beirut 1417 A.H, vol.13 p.386
 Al-Majruhin, Dar al-Wa'i, Halb, 1396 A.H. vol.3 p.65
 Mezan al-A'itdal, Dar al-Ma'rifah, Beirut 1963 vol.4 p.462 No. 9856
 Kitab al-Radd 'alaa Abu Bakr al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, included in Tarikh al-Baghdad wa Ziyuluhu, vol.22 p.54
 Manaqib al-Imam al-‘Azam Abi Hanifa, Da’ira al-Ma’arif al-Nizamia, Hyderabad Deccan 1321 A.H. vol.2 p.102
 Jami' al-Masanid, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyyah, Beirut n.d. vol.1 p.63
 Tarikh al-Baghdad wa Ziyuluhu, vol.2 p.78
 Inbah al-Ruwat 'ala Anbah al-Nuhat, Maktaba al-'Ansariya, Beirut 1424 A.H. vol.2 p.344
 Ta’nib al-Khatib ‘ala Ma Saqahu fi Tarjimati Abi Hanifah Min al-Akazib, Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, Beirut, 1990 p.175
 Ibn Hazm, Al-Ahkam fi Usool al-Ahkam, Dar al-Afaq al-Jadida, Beirut n.d. vol.4 p.188