One of the most important features of the Shariʿa and indeed of Islam as a whole is the pervasive role of the doctrinal legal schools. In Sunni Islam, these schools were four: the HANAFI, MALIKI, SHAFIʿI and HANBALI, named after the four MASTER-JURISTS who were assumed to be their founders. (It is worthwhile noting that these schools are entirely different from, and share no characteristics with, the law schools in our universities nowadays.)
The Arabic word for the legal school is MADHHAB, a term that has several meanings, all of which are interconnected. Generally, the word means that which is followed and, more specifically, the opinion or idea that one chooses to adopt; hence, a particular opinion of a jurist. Historically, this meaning of the term is of early provenance, probably dating back to the end of the seventh century, but certainly to the middle of the eighth. By the early ninth century, its use had become common.
The term madhhab is associated with three other meanings that have emerged out of, and subsequent to, this basic usage, and which reflected the formation of schools. The first of these meanings is a principle defining the conceptual juristic boundaries of a set of cases. For example, an assumption of the Hanafis is that misappropriation, in order to obtain, must involve the unlawful removal of property from its original place, where it had been in the possession of the owner.