Among those who played an actual role in the formation of the personality of Imaam Maalik ibn Anas were esteemed teachers, who are known by all those who have studied the life of this unique Imaam. In particular, they include the "two Naafi's", each of whom had a laudable effect on Imaam Maalik, so much so that he never forgot them.
The first was the outstanding faqeeh and reliable transmitter of hadeeth, Naafi' ibn Sarjis Abu 'Abdullah ad-Daylami, who died in 120 AH according to one statement, the same year that Malik reached the age of 47. This Naafi' ibn Sarjis, according to Ibn Hazm al-Qurtubi, was one of "the people of fatwas." Those who deal with hadeeth say, "The soundest of chains Malik from Nafi' from Ibn 'Umar." This chain is called "the golden chain" by those who deal with this science.
This is why I have briefly indicated that Malik maintained this particular close connection to Naafi' as the biographers of Maalik clearly state. Maalik joined him very early on; he relates,
"I used to go to Nafi', the freed-slave of Ibn 'Umar, while I was still a lad. He came down to me from a ladder of his – and his slave guided him after he went blind – and went from his house at Baqi' to the Mosque of the Prophet, where I would ask him questions and hear ahaadeeth from him."
Despite this high position which Naafi' ibn Sarjis had with the rest of his fellow Madinans and despite the large amount which Malik ibn Anas obtained from him, as is indicated when he said,
"When I listened to the hadith of Nafi' b. Sarjis, from Ibn 'Umar, I did not care for anyone else (i.e. didn't need to learn from anyone else) except for him, above anyone else."
Malik only related about 80 hadiths from him in his Muwatta', with some dispute over the exact number.
But the Naafi' about whom we intend to speak is the second Naafi', Naafi' ibn Abi Nu'aym the recitor (al-Qari') who died only about ten years before Malik. Among his contemporaries were Isma'il ibn Ja'far, 'Isa ibn Wardan, and Sulayman ibn Muslim ibn Jammaz, and all of them took recitaition from Imam Naafi' by way of both reading and listening.
Malik learnt recitation and hadith from Nafi'
When people relate from Naafi' ibn Abi Nu'aym, they relate from the Qari' (the "Reciter") since from this is his fame primarily and before everything else. In fact, he was one of the seven recitors who have a recognised recitation (qiraa'ah). According to what Abu Qurra ibn Tariq reports, he studied recitiation with seventy of the Tabi'oon, but was also interested in hadith. Ibn 'Adi reports to us that Nafi' left us a text of a hundred hadiths of Naafi' from al-A'raj, as he left another text of more than a hundred hadiths from him from Ibn az-Zinad from al-A'raj, and he also left us about fifty hadiths in at-Tafariq. Those who are very devoted to this science do not know of a single munkar hadith from him.
Perhaps an opponent might ask: "If Naafi' was also a relator of hadiths as you state, then why do we not see any tradition in Maalik's Muwatta where he mentions hadith which might have been related from him?" I say: perhaps that refers to something which was known by them in the second century: A MAN MAY BE ONE OF THE GREAT FUQAHA' AND NEVERTHELESS, HIS HADITH ARE ABANDONED. Then I ask: was there not Ibn Hurmuz, i.e. Abu Bakr ibn Yazid al-Asamm, d. 148 AH, one of the great fuqaha' and one of those whose company Imaam Maalik kept for years? In spite of that, we practically do not find a single hadith in the Muwatta' of Malik which was taken from Ibn Hurmuz although he did not leave an opportunity to praise him. He often said,
"This is what I found the people of knowledge in our land had," or says, "The matter with us is like that,"
and he is referring Ibn Hurmuz and Rabi'a ar-Ra'iy ibn Abi 'Abdu'r-Rahman Farukh from whom Malik has twelve related hadiths, musnad and mursal despite the length of time he kept to him.
Malik's respect for the opinions of his teacher Nafi'
Although Malik was, as is not hidden from anyone, the possessor of precise opinion which did not err, he did not announce his opinion in a case in which it was known that his teacher Nafi' had an opinion in it. For instance, Abu Sa'id 'Abdu'l-Malik ibn Qurayb al-Asma'i asked him about the basmala and Malik replied,
"In any knowledge, question its proper people. Naafi' is the Imam of the people in recitation."
Maalik would not have an opinion different from the opinion of the one who prayed in the mosque of the Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, for sixty years without cessation, during which he was not opposed by any of the recitors of the Tabi'un, even though this spanned over such a lengthy period of time.
Naafi' is the Qur'an-Reciter of Madinah without dispute
Imaam Naafi' recited to the people in Madinah for a long time, about seventy years, and he was the leader of the recitors in this blessed city, which is the city of the Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace. People would specifically go to him in order to learn the recitation of the Qur'aan.
The recitation for which Imam Naafi' is famous and which Imam Malik related from him, by way of both reading and listening, was closely adhered to by the people. It is with this recitation that we, in Morocco, recite the Qur'aan. We recite it by one of the two transmissions from him, which is the transmission of Warsh. That is how we are famously known to be in Morocco, agreeing in the best possible manner with the 'amal (action) of the people of Madinah in all our activities of the deen, both in acts of worship and behaviour.
After the Tabi'oon, Imaam Naafi' was an Imaam in recitation for hundreds of his students, who included Imaam Maalik ibn Anas. He is a noteworthy student of Imaam an-Naafi' as he took this recitation while knowing of the existence of recitations which followed the traditions of past Imams.
The recitation of Nafi' is Sunnah and there is nothing strange about that
Sa'id b. Mansur reported to us that he heard Maalik ibn Anas say,
"The recitation of the people of Madinah is Sunnah."
He was asked, "The recitation of Naafi'?" He replied,
Al-Layth ibn Sa'eed said,
"I went on Hajj in 113 A.H. and the Imaam of the people in recitation in Madina was Naafi'."
'Abdullah ibn Ahmad ibn Hanbal said,
"I asked my father, 'Which recitation do you prefer?' He replied,
"The recitiation of the people of Madinah.'"
It is not strange that the recitiation of someone who saw the Noble Messenger, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, in a dream in which he was reciting into his mouth, should be a followed sunnah.
Abu 'Amr ad-Dani related to us, "A man among those who learned recitation with Nafi' said, "When Nafi' spoke, the fragrance of musk could be smelt from his mouth. I said to him,
'Abu 'Abdillah! Do you use perfume whenever you sit to recite to the people?'
'I do not touch perfume, but I saw in a dream that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was reciting into my mouth and from that moment I have smelt this fragrance from my mouth.'"
Al-Musayyabi informed us, "It was said to Nafi',
'How resplendent your face is and how handsome your physique!'
'How could it not be when the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, breathed on me and I recited the Qur'an (i.e. in my dream).'"