Understanding the Four Madzahib

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is adapted from Understanding the Four Madzahib: The Problem with Anti-Madzhab-ism by Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad.

The ummah’s greatest achievement over the past millennium has undoubtedly been its internal intellectual cohesion.  From the fifth century of the Hijrah almost to the present day, and despite the outward drama of the clash of dynasties, the Sunni Muslims have maintained an almost unfailing attitude of religious respect and brotherhood among themselves.  It is a striking fact that virtually no religious wars, riots or persecutions divided them during this extended period, so difficult in other ways.

The history of religious movements suggests that this is an unusual outcome.  The normal sociological view, as expounded by Max Weber and his disciples, is that religions enjoy an initial period of unity, and then descend into an increasingly bitter factionalism led by rival hierarchies.  Christianity has furnished the most obvious example of this; but one could add many others, including secular faiths such as Marxism.  On the face of it, Islam's ability to avoid this fate is astonishing, and demands careful analysis.

There is, of course, a straightforwardly religious explanation.  Islam is the final religion, the last bus home, and as such has been Divinely Secured from the more terminal forms of decay.  It is true that what Shaykh Abdul Wadod Shalabi has termed ‘spiritual entropy’ has been at work ever since Islam's inauguration, a fact which is well-supported by a number of hadiths.  He said this is the purport of the famous hadits, “The best generation is my own, then that which follows them, then that which follows them”, from Swahih Muslim.

Nonetheless, Providence has not neglected the ummah.  Earlier religions slide gently or painfully into schism and irrelevance; but Islamic piety, while fading in quality, has been given mechanisms which allow it to retain much of the sense of unity emphasised in its glory days.  Wherever the antics of the emirs and politicians might lead, the brotherhood of believers, a reality in the initial career of Christianity and some other faiths, continues, fourteen hundred years on, to be a compelling principle for most members of the final and definitive community of revelation in Islam.  The reason is simple and unarguable: God has Given us this religion as His Last Word, and it must therefore endure, with its essentials of tawhid, worship and ethics intact, until the Last Days.

Such an explanation has obvious merit.  But we will still need to explain some painful exceptions to the rule in the earliest phase of our history.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) himself had told his companions, in a hadits narrated by Imam at-Tirmidzi (r.a.), that “Whoever among you outlives me shall see a vast dispute”.  The initial schisms include the disastrous revolt against ‘Utsman (r.a.).  The khalifah was killed by Muslim rebels from Egypt, whose grievances included his alleged ‘innovation’ of introducing a standard text of the Holy Qur’an.  Evidently, the belief among some modern Muslims that there can be no such thing as a ‘good innovation’, bid’ah al-hasanah, has a long history.  Then there was the clash between ‘Ali (k.w.) and Thalhah (r.a.), and then with Mu’awiyah (r.a.), and the bloody scissions of the Kharijites amongst other events.  All these drove knives of discord into the Muslim body politic almost from the outset.

Only the inherent sanity and love of unity among scholars of the ummah assisted, no doubt, by Providence overcame the early spasms of factionalism, and created a strong and harmonious Sunnism which has, at least on the purely religious plane, united ninety percent of the ummah for ninety percent of its history.

It will help us greatly to understand our modern, increasingly divided situation if we look closely at those forces which divided us in the distant past.  There were many of these, some of them very eccentric; but only two took the form of mass popular movements, driven by religious ideology, and in active rebellion against majoritarian faith and scholarship.  For good reasons, these two acquired the names of Kharijism and Shi’ism.  Unlike Sunnism, both were highly productive of splinter groups and sub-movements; but they nonetheless remained as recognisable traditions of dissidence because of their ability to express the two great divergences from mainstream opinion on the key question of the source of religious authority in Islam.

Confronted with what they saw as moral slippage among early caliphs, posthumous partisans of ‘Ali (k.w.) developed a theory of religious authority which departed from the older egalitarian assumptions by vesting it in a charismatic succession of a’immah.  We need not stop here to investigate the question of whether this idea was influenced by the Eastern Christian background of some early converts, who had been nourished on the idea of the mystical apostolic succession to Christ (a.s.), a gift which supposedly gave the Church the unique ability to read his mind for later generations.  What needs to be appreciated is that Shi’ism, in its myriad forms, developed as a response to a widely-sensed lack of definitive religious authority in early Islamic society.  As the age of the Righteous Caliphs came to a close, and the Umayyad rulers departed ever more conspicuously from the lifestyle expected of them as Commanders of the Faithful, the sharply-divergent and still nascent schools of fiqh seemed inadequate as sources of strong and unambiguous authority in religious matters.  Hence the often irresistible seductiveness of the idea of an infallible imam.

This interpretation of the rise of Imamism also helps to explain the second great phase in Shi’i expansion.  After the success of the fifth-century Sunni revival, when Sunnism seemed at last to have become a fully coherent system, Shi’ism went into a slow eclipse.  Its extreme wing, as manifested in Ismailism, received a heavy blow at the hands of Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.), whose book ‘Scandals of the Bathiniyyah’ exposed and refuted their secret doctrines with devastating force.  This decline in Shi’i fortunes was only arrested after the mid-seventh century, once the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan had invaded and obliterated the central lands of Islam.  The onslaught was unimaginably harsh: we are told, for instance, that out of a hundred thousand former inhabitants of the city of Herat, only forty survivors crept out of the smoking ruins to survey the devastation.  In the wake of this tidal wave of mayhem, newly-converted Turcoman nomads moved in, who, with the Sunni ‘ulama of the cities dead, and a general atmosphere of fear, turbulence, and Messianic expectation in the air, turned readily to extremist forms of Shi’i belief.  Shaykh Ahmad Aflaki (r.a.), in his Manaqib al-‘Arifin, stated that 50,000 scholars were killed in the city of Balkh alone.

The triumph of Shi'ism in Iran, a country once loyal to Sunnism, dates back to that painful period.  The critical battle was fought in 873 AH / 1469 CE, when the Mongol ruler of Iran was defeated by the Turkomans of the Sunni Ak Koyunlu dynasty, who were in turn defeated by Shah Isma’il, an extreme Shi`ite, in 906-7 AH / 1501 CE, who inaugurated the Safavid rule which turned Iran into a Shi’i country..

The other great dissident movement in early Islam was that of the Kharijites, literally, ‘the Seceders’, so-called because they seceded from the army of the Caliph ‘Ali (k.w.) when he agreed to settle his dispute with Mu’awiyah (r.a.) through arbitration. Calling out the Qur’anic slogan, “Judgement is God’s Alone”, they fought bitterly against ‘Ali (k.w.) and his army which included many of the leading companions, until, in the year 38 AH, ‘Ali (k.w.) defeated them at the Battle of Nahrawan, where some ten thousand of them perished.  The Kharijites represent a tendency which has reappeared in some circles in recent years.  Divided into many factions, their principles were never fully codified.  They were textualist, puritanical and anti-intellectual, rejected the condition of Qurayshite birth for their imam, and declared everyone outside their grouping to be kafir.

Although the first Kharijites were destroyed, Kharijism itself lived on.  As it formulated itself, it turned into the precise opposite of Shi’ism, rejecting any notion of inherited or charismatic leadership, and stressing that leadership of the community of believers should be decided by piety alone.  This was assessed by very rudimentary criteria: the early Kharijites were known for extreme toughness in their devotions, and for the harsh doctrine that any Muslim who commits a major sin is an unbeliever.  This notion of takfir, declaring Muslims to be outside Islam, permitted the Kharijite groups, camping out in remote mountain districts of Khuzestan, to raid Muslim settlements which had accepted Umayyad authority.  Non-Kharijis were routinely slaughtered in these operations, which brought merciless reprisals from tough Umayyad generals such as al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf.  But despite the apparent hopelessness of their cause, the Kharijite attacks continued.  The Caliph ‘Ali (k.w.) was assassinated by ibn Muljam, a survivor of Nahrawan, while the hadits scholar, Imam an-Nasa’i (r.a.), author of one of the most respected collections of sunan, was likewise murdered by Kharijite fanatics in Damascus in 303 AH / 915 CE.  This was probably because he had written a book celebrating the virtues of the caliph, ‘Ali (k.w.).

Like Shi’ism, Kharijism caused much instability in Iraq and Central Asia, and on occasion elsewhere, until the fourth and fifth centuries of Islam.  At that point, something of historic moment occurred.  Sunnism managed to unite itself into a detailed system that was now so well worked-out, and so obviously the way of the great majority of ‘ulama, that the attraction of the rival movements diminished sharply.

What happened was this. Sunni Islam, occupying the middle ground between the two extremes of egalitarian Kharijism and hierarchical Shi'ism, had long been preoccupied with disputes over its own concept of authority.  For the Sunnis, authority was, by definition, vested in the Qur’an and sunnah.  But confronted with the enormous body of ahadits, which had been scattered in various forms and narrations throughout the length and breadth of the Islamic world following the migrations of the companions and followers, the sunnah sometimes proved difficult to interpret.  Even when the sound ahadits had been sifted out from this great body of material, which totaled several hundred thousand ahadits reports, there were some ahadits which appeared to conflict with each other, or even with verses of the Qur’an.  It was obvious that simplistic approaches such as that of the Kharijites, namely, establishing a small corpus of ahadits and deriving doctrines and law from them directly, was not going to work.  The internal contradictions were too numerous, and the interpretations placed on them too complex, for the qudhat, judges, to be able to dish out judgements simply by opening the Qur’an and ahadits collections to an appropriate page.

The reasons underlying cases of apparent conflict between various revealed texts were scrutinised closely by the early ‘ulama, often amid sustained debate between brilliant minds backed up with the most perfect photographic memories.  Much of the science of Islamic jurisprudence, uswul al-fiqh, was developed in order to provide consistent mechanisms for resolving such conflicts in a way which ensured fidelity to the basic ethos of Islam.  The term ta’arudh al-adillah, mutual contradiction of proof-texts, is familiar to all students of Islamic jurisprudence as one of the most sensitive and complex of all Muslim legal concepts.  Early scholars such as Imam ibn Qutaybah (r.a.) felt obliged to devote whole books to the subject, including Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadits.  Mention should also be made of Imam ath-Thahawi’s (r.a.) Mushkil al-Atsar, which is more widely used among the ‘ulama.

The ‘ulama of uswul recognised as their starting assumption that conflicts between the Revealed texts were no more than conflicts of interpretation, and could not reflect inconsistencies in the Lawgiver’s Message as conveyed by the Prophet (s.a.w.).  The message of Islam had been perfectly conveyed before his demise; and the function of subsequent scholars was exclusively one of interpretation, not of amendment.

Armed with this awareness, the Islamic scholar, when examining problematic texts, begins by attempting a series of preliminary academic tests and methods of resolution.  The system developed by the early ‘ulama was that if two Qur’anic or hadits texts appeared to contradict each other, then the scholar must first analyse the texts linguistically, to see if the contradiction arises from an error in interpreting the Arabic.  If the contradiction cannot be resolved by this method, then he must attempt to determine, on the basis of a range of textual, legal and historiographic techniques, whether one of them is subject to takhswisw, that is, concerns special circumstances only, and hence forms a specific exception to the more general principle enunciated in the other text.  Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) cited a number of well-known examples of Qur’anic texts being subject to takhswisw.  For instance, this verse:

As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a retribution for their deed and exemplary punishment from Allah and Allah is Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom. (Surah al-Ma’idah:38)

This verse appears to be unconditional; however it is subject to takhswisw by the hadits which reads, “Hands should not be cut off for fruits, nor the spadix of a palm tree, and that the hand should not be cut off unless the price of the thing stolen is a quarter of a dinar or more.”  This is found in Imam Malik’s (r.a.) al-Muwaththa’, Imam Abu Dawud’s (r.a.) Sunan; and explained in Imam ash-Shafi’i’s (r.a.) ar-Risalah.

The jurist must also assess the textual status of the reports, recalling the principle that a Qur’anic verse will overrule a hadits related by only one isnad, the type of hadits known as ahad, as will ahadits supplied by many asanad, being mutawatir or mashhur.  If, after applying all these mechanisms, the jurist finds that the conflict remains, he must then investigate the possibility that one of the texts was subject to formal abrogation, naskh, by the other.  This is explained in some detail in Shaykh Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s “Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence.”

This principle of naskh is an example of how, when dealing with the delicate matter of ta’arudh al-adillah, the Sunni ‘ulama founded their approach on textual policies which had already been recognised many times during the lifetime of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  The companions knew by ijma’ that over the years of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) ministry, as he taught and nurtured them, and brought them from the wildness of paganism to the sober and compassionate path of monotheism, his teaching had been Divinely Shaped to keep pace with their development.  The best-known instance of this was the progressive prohibition of wine, which had been discouraged by an early Qur’anic verse, then Condemned, and finally Prohibited.  The verses in question were as follows:

They ask thee concerning wine and gambling.  Say, “In them is great sin, and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit …” ― (Surah al-Baqarah:219)

O ye who believe!  Approach not prayers with a mind befogged, until ye can understand all that ye say ... (Surah an-Nisa’:43)

O ye who believe!  Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination ― of Satan's handiwork: eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper.  Satan’s plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain? (Surah al-Ma’idah:90-91)

Another example, touching an even more basic principle, was the canonical prayer, which the early ummah had been obliged to say only twice daily, but which, following the Mi’raj, was increased to five times a day.  Mut’ah, temporary marriage, had been permitted in the early days of Islam, but was subsequently prohibited as social conditions developed, respect for women grew, and morals became firmer.  There are several other instances of this, most being datable to the years immediately following the Hijrah, when the circumstances of the young ummah changed in radical ways.  The problem was first addressed systematically by Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.).  He wrote in his ar-Risalah, “There are certain ahadits which agree with one another, and others which are contradictory to one another; the abrogating and the abrogated ahadits are clearly distinguished; in others, the ahadits which are abrogating and abrogated are not indicated.”

The sunnah is able to abrogate the Qur’an because it too is a Revelation, wahy; as Imam al-Baji (r.a.) explained it, “The Blessed Prophet’s (s.a.w.) own sunan do not, in reality, abrogate anything themselves; they only state that Allah has Cancelled the ruling of a Qur’anic passage.  Hence the abrogation, in reality, is from Allah, whether the abrogating passage is in the Qur’an or the sunnah.”  This view is not accepted by all.

There are two types of naskh: explicit, swarih; or implicit, dhimni.  The former is easily identified, for it involves texts which themselves specify that an earlier ruling is being changed.  For instance, there is the verse in the Qur’an which Commands the Muslims to turn in prayer to the Ka’bah rather than to Jerusalem.

The fools among the people will say, “What hath turned them from the qiblah to which they were used?”  Say, To Allah Belongs both East and West; He Guideth whom He Will to a Way that is straight. (Surah al-Baqarah:142)

In the hadits literature, this is even more frequently encountered; for example, in a hadits narrated by Imam Muslim (r.a.), we read, “I used to forbid you to visit graves; but you should now visit them.”  Commenting on this, the ‘ulama of ahadits explain that in early Islam, when idolatrous practices were still fresh in people’s memories, visiting graves had been forbidden because of the fear that some new Muslims might commit shirk.  As the Muslims grew stronger in their monotheism, however, this prohibition was discarded as no longer necessary, so that today it is a recommended practice for Muslims to go out to visit graves in order to pray for the dead and to be reminded of akhirah.

The other type of naskh is more subtle, and often taxed the brilliance of the early ‘ulama to the limit.  It involves texts which cancel earlier ones, or modify them substantially, but without actually stating that this has taken place.  The ‘ulama have given many examples of this, including the two verses in Surah al-Baqarah which give differing instructions as to the period for which widows should be maintained out of an estate:

Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their widows a year's maintenance and residence; but if they leave (the residence) there is no blame on you for what they do with themselves, provided it is reasonable And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (Surah al-Baqarah:240)

If any of you die and leave widows behind; they shall wait concerning themselves four months and ten days when they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just and reasonable manner.  And Allah is Well Acquainted with what ye do. (Surah al-Baqarah:234)

And in the hadits literature, there is the example of the incident in which the Prophet (s.a.w.) once told the companions that when he prayed sitting because he was burdened by some illness, they should sit behind him.  This hadits is given by Imam Muslim (r.a.).  And yet we find another hadits, also narrated by Imam Muslim (r.a.), which records an incident in which the companions prayed standing while the Prophet (s.a.w.) was sitting.  The apparent contradiction has been resolved by careful chronological analysis, which shows that the latter incident took place after the former, and therefore takes precedence over it.  This has duly been recorded in the fiqh of the great scholars.

The techniques of naskh identification have enabled the ‘ulama to resolve most of the recognised cases of ta’arudh al-adillah.  They demand a rigorous and detailed knowledge not just of the ahadits disciplines, but of history, sirah, and of the views held by the companions and other scholars on the circumstances surrounding the genesis and exegesis of the hadits in question.  In some cases, ahadits scholars would travel throughout the Islamic world to locate the required information pertinent to a single hadits.

In cases where in spite of all efforts, abrogation cannot be proven, then the ‘ulama of the salaf recognised the need to apply further tests.  Important among these is the analysis of the matn, the transmitted text rather than the isnad of the hadits.  Defects in the matn can sometimes make a hadits weak even if its isnad is sound.  Clear, swarih, statements are deemed to take precedence over allusive, kinayah, ones, and definite, muhkam, words take precedence over words falling into more ambiguous categories, such as the interpreted, mufassar, the obscure khafi, and the problematic, mushkil.  The classification of revealed texts under these headings is one of the most sensitive areas of uswul al-fiqh.  It may also be necessary to look at the position of the narrators of the conflicting ahadits, giving precedence to the report issuing from the individual who was more directly involved.  A famous example of this is the hadits narrated by Maymunah (r.a.) which states that the Prophet (s.a.w.) married her when not in a state of consecration, ihram, for the pilgrimage.  Because her report was that of an eyewitness, her hadits is given precedence over the conflicting report from ibn ‘Abbas (r.a.), related by a similarly sound isnad, which stated that the Prophet (s.a.w.) was, in fact, in a state of ihram at the time.

There are many other rules, such as that which states that ‘prohibition takes precedence over permissibility.’  Similarly, conflicting ahadits may be resolved by utilising the fatwa of a companion, after taking care that all the relevant fatawa are compared and assessed.  Finally, recourse may be had to qiyas, analogy.  An example of this is the various reports about the solar eclipse prayer, swalah al-kusuf, which specify different numbers of bowings and prostrations.  The ‘ulama, having investigated the reports meticulously, and having been unable to resolve the contradiction by any of the mechanisms outlined above, have applied analogical reasoning by concluding that since the prayer in question is still called ‘swalah’, then the usual form of ‘swalah’ should be followed, namely, one bowing and two prostrations.  The other ahadits are to be abandoned.

This careful articulation of the methods of resolving conflicting source-texts, so vital to the accurate derivation of the shari’ah from the revealed sources, was primarily the work of Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.).  Confronted by the confusion and disagreement among the jurists of his day, and determined to lay down a consistent methodology which would enable a fiqh to be established in which the possibility of error was excluded as far as was humanly possible, Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) wrote his brilliant ar-Risalah, Treatise, on Islamic jurisprudence.  His ideas were soon taken up, in varying ways, by jurists of the other major traditions of law; and today they are fundamental to the formal application of the shari’ah.

The Shafi’i system of minimising mistakes in the derivation of Islamic rulings from the mass of evidence came to be known as uswul al-fiqh, the roots of fiqh.  Like most of the other formal academic disciplines of Islam, this was not an innovation in the negative sense, but a working-out of principles already discernible in the time of the earliest Muslims.  In time, each of the great interpretative traditions of Sunni Islam codified its own variation on these roots, thereby yielding in some cases divergent branches, specific rulings on practice.  Although the debates generated by these divergences could sometimes be energetic, nonetheless, they were insignificant when compared to the great sectarian and legal disagreements which had arisen during the first two centuries of Islam before the science of uswul al-fiqh had put a stop to such chaotic discord.

It hardly needs remarking that although the four a’immah, Imam Abu Hanifah (r.a.), Imam Malik ibn Anas (r.a.), Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), are regarded as the founders of these four great traditions, which, if we were asked to define them, we might sum up as sophisticated techniques for avoiding innovation, their traditions were fully systematised only by later generations of scholars.  The Sunni ‘ulama rapidly recognised the brilliance of the four a’immah, and after the late third century of Islam we find that hardly any scholars adhered to any other approach.  The great ahadits specialists, including Imam al-Bukhari (r.a.) and Imam Muslim (r.a.), were all loyal adherents of one or another of the madzahib, particularly that of Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.).  But within each madzhab, leading scholars continued to improve and refine the roots and branches of their school.  In some cases, historical conditions made this not only possible, but necessary.  For instance, scholars of the school of Imam Abu Hanifah (r.a.), which was built on the foundations of the early legal schools of Kufa and Basra, were wary of some ahadits in circulation in Iraq because of the prevalence of forgery engendered by the strong sectarian influences there.  Later, however, once the canonical collections of Imam al-Bukhari (r.a.), Imam Muslim (r.a.) and others became available, subsequent generations of Hanafi scholars took the entire corpus of ahadits into account in formulating and revising their madzhab.

This type of process continued for two centuries, until the schools reached a condition of maturity in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Hijrah.  The question is often asked why only four schools should be followed today.  The answer is straightforward: while in theory there is no reason whatsoever why the number has to be four, the historical fact is that only these four have sufficient detailed literature to support them.  In connection with the hyper-literalist Zhahiri madzhab, Imam ibn Khaldun (r.a.) wrote in his al-Muqadimmah, “Worthless persons occasionally feel obliged to follow the Zhahiri school and study these books in the desire to learn the Zhahiri system of jurisprudence from them, but they get nowhere, and encounter the opposition and disapproval of the great mass of Muslims.  In doing so they often are considered innovators, as they accept knowledge from books for which no key is provided by teachers.”  It must be pointed out though that there has always been substantial hostility towards that madzhab, particularly from the Maliki so this should be taken in that context.  Rather, the four madzahib can be seen as an amalgamation of the previous schools.

It was at that time, too, that the attitude of toleration and good opinion between the schools became universally accepted.  This was formulated by Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.), himself the author of four textbooks of Shafi’i fiqh.  These are in order of length from the shortest, al-Khulaswah, al-Wajiz, al-Wasith and al-Basith.  The great Imam penned over a hundred other books, earning him the title, ‘Hujjat al-Islam’, ‘The Proof of Islam’.  It is hardly surprising that when the ‘ulama quote the famous swahih hadits, “Allah shall Raise up for this ummah, at the beginning of each century, someone who will renew for it its religion,” they cite Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.) as the renewer of the fifth century of Islam.  Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.) is also the author of al-Mustaswfa’, widely acclaimed as the most advanced and careful of all works on uswul al-fiqh fi al-madzhab.

With his well-known concern for sincerity, and his dislike of ostentatious scholarly rivalry, he strongly condemned what he called in his Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din, ‘fanatical attachment to a madzhab’.  While it was necessary for the Muslim to follow a recognised madzhab in order to avert the lethal danger of misinterpreting the sources, he must never fall into the trap of considering his own school categorically superior to the others.  With a few insignificant exceptions in the late Ottoman period, in British India and in Malaysia today, the great scholars of Sunni Islam have followed the ethos outlined by Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.), and have been conspicuously respectful of each other’s madzhab.  Anyone who has studied under traditional ‘ulama will be well-aware of this fact.  Imam Yusuf ad-Dajawi (r.a.) said in his Maqalat wa al-Fatawa, “The most characteristic qualities of the great ‘ulama are dignity and serenity, respect for other scholars, compassionate concern for the ummah, and following the Prophet (s.a.w.), whose view was always broad, his wisdom perfect, and his toleration superb.”

Imam ash-Shathibi (r.a.), in his al-I’itiswam, said, “True fairness is to regard all the a’immah as worthy; whoever follows the madzhab of a mujtahid because he has not attained the level of ijtihad, is not harmed by the fact that other a’immah differ from his own.”

There are many examples cited by the scholars to show the respect of the madzahib for each other.  For instance, Shaykh Ibrahim as-Samadi (r.a.), a pious scholar of Damascus, once prayed to be given four sons, so that each might follow one of the recognized madzahib, thereby bringing a fourfold blessing to his house.  And it was not uncommon for scholars to be able to give fatawa in more than one madzhab; such a man was known technically as ‘mufti al-firaq’.  Hostility between the madzahib was rare.  Imam adz-Dzahabi (r.a.) counselled his readers as follows: “Do not think that your madzhab is the best, and the one most beloved by Allah, for you have no proof of this.  The a’immah all follow great goodness; when they are right, they receive two Rewards, and when they are wrong, they still receive one Reward.”  The portion about rewards were paraphrased from a known hadits.

The evolution of the four schools did not stifle, as some Orientalists have suggested, the capacity for the refinement or extension of positive law.  On the contrary, sophisticated mechanisms were available which not only permitted qualified individuals to derive the shari’ah from the Qur’an and sunnah on their own authority, but actually obliged them to do this.  According to most scholars, an expert who has fully mastered the sources and fulfilled a variety of necessary scholarly conditions is not permitted to follow the prevalent rulings of his school, but must derive the rulings himself from the revealed sources.  Such an individual is known as a mujtahid.  A mujtahid is a scholar qualified to perform ijtihad, defined as ‘personal effort to derive a shari’ah ruling of the furu’ from the revealed sources.’  His chief task, the actual process of derivation, is called istinbath, originally signifying in Arabic, ‘bringing up water with difficulty from a well.’

Mujtahid’ is a term derived from the famous hadits of Mu’adz ibn Jabal (r.a.).  When the Prophet (s.a.w.) wanted to send Mu’adz ibn Jabal (r.a.) to the Yemen, he asked him, “How will you judge if an issue is presented to you for judgement?”

“By what is in Allah’s Book,” he replied.

“And if you do not find it in Allah’s Book?”

“Then by the sunnah of Allah’s Messenger.”

“And if it is not in the sunnah of Allah’s Messenger?”

“Then I shall strive in my own judgement.”   The exact words in Arabic were ‘ajtahidu ra’yi’.

It will be useful here to refute an accusation made by some Orientalists, and even by some modern Muslims, who suggest that the scholars were reluctant to challenge the madzhab system because if they did so they would be ‘out of a job’, and lucrative qadhi positions, restricted to followers of the orthodox schools, would be barred to them.  This is a particularly distasteful example of the modern tendency to slander men whose moral integrity was no less impressive than their learning: to suggest that the great ‘ulama of Islam followed the interpretation of Islam that they did simply for financial reasons is insulting and a disgraceful form of ghibah, backbiting.  In any case, it can be easily refuted.  The great ‘ulama of the past were in almost every case men of independent means, and did not need to earn from their scholarship.  For instance, Imam ibn Hajr (r.a.) had inherited a fortune from his mother.  Imam as-Suyuthi (q.s.) came from a prominent and wealthy family of civil servants.  Imam al-Baji (r.a.) was a craftsman who made gold leaf; his academic associates recall that he used to go out to see them with his hand ‘sore from the effects of the hammer,’ as mentioned in Imam adz-Dzahabi’s (r.a.) Tadzkirah.  Imam Khalil ibn Ishaq (r.a.), also a Maliki, was a soldier who had taken part in the liberation of Alexandria from the Crusaders, and often gave his fiqh classes while still wearing his chain mail and helmet.  And it was typical for the great scholars to live lives of great frugality.  Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), who died at the age of 44, is said to have damaged his health by his ascetic lifestyle: for instance, he declined to eat of the fruit of Damascus, where he taught, because it was grown on land whose legal status he regarded as suspect.  It is not easy to see how such men could have allowed motives of financial gain to dictate their approach to religion.

Few would seriously deny that for a Muslim to venture beyond established expert opinion and have recourse directly to the Qur’an and sunnah, he must be a scholar of great eminence.  The danger of less-qualified individuals misunderstanding the sources and hence damaging the shari’ah is a very real one, as was shown by the discord and strife which afflicted some early Muslims, and even some of the companions themselves, in the period which preceded the establishment of the orthodox schools.  Prior to Islam, entire religions had been subverted by inadequate scriptural scholarship, and it was vital that Islam should be secured from a comparable fate.

In order to protect the shari’ah from the danger of innovation and distortion, the great scholars of uswul laid down rigorous conditions which must be fulfilled by anyone wishing to claim the right of ijtihad for himself.  These conditions included mastery of the Arabic language, to minimise the possibility of misinterpreting Revelation on purely linguistic grounds; a profound knowledge of the Qur’an and sunnah and the circumstances surrounding the Revelation of each verse and hadits, together with a full knowledge of the Qur’anic and hadits commentaries, and a control of all the interpretative techniques discussed above; knowledge of the specialised disciplines of hadits, such as the assessment of narrators and of the matn; knowledge of the views of the companions, followers and the great a’immah, and of the positions and reasoning expounded in the textbooks of fiqh, combined with the knowledge of cases where a consensus, ijma’, has been reached; knowledge of the science of juridical analogy, qiyas, its types and conditions; knowledge of one’s own society and of public interest, maswlahah; knowing the general objectives, maqaswid, of the shari’ah; and a high degree of intelligence and personal piety, combined with the Islamic virtues of compassion, courtesy, and modesty.

A scholar who has fulfilled these conditions can be considered a mujtahid fi ash-shar, and is not obliged, or even permitted, to follow an existing authoritative madzhab.  Examples of such men from the time of the tabi’un onwards include Imam Ibrahim an-Nakha’i (r.a.), Imam ibn Abi Layla (r.a.), Imam ibn Shubruma (r.a.), Imam Sufyan ats-Tsawri (r.a.), Imam Hasan ibn Swalih (r.a.), Imam al-Awza’i (r.a.), Imam ‘Amr ibn al-Harits (r.a.), Imam al-Layts ibn Sa’d (r.a.), Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Abi Ja’far (r.a.), Imam Ishaq ibn Rahawayh (r.a.), Imam Abu ‘Ubayd al-Qasim ibn ‘Abd as-Salam (r.a.), Imam Abu Tsawr (r.a.), Imam ibn Khuzaymah (r.a.), Imam ibn Naswr al-Marwazi (r.a.), Imam ibn Mundzir (r.a.), Imam Dawud azh-Zhahiri (r.a.), and Imam ibn Jarir ath-Thabari (r.a.).  It should be noted that, according to some scholars, a concession, rukhswah, exists on the matter of the permissibility of taqlid for a mujtahid.  Imam al-Baji (r.a.) and Imam al-Haramayn (r.a.), for instance, permitted a mujtahid to follow another mujtahid in cases where his own research to establish a matter would result in dangerous delay to the performance of a religious duty.

This is what some of the a’immah were saying when they forbade their great disciples from imitating them uncritically.  But for the much greater number of scholars whose expertise has not reached such dizzying heights, it may be possible to become a mujtahid fi al-madzhab, that is, a scholar who remains broadly convinced of the doctrines of his school, but is qualified to differ from received opinion within it.  There have been a number of examples of such men, for instance, Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.) among the Shafi’is, Qadhi ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (r.a.) among the Malikis, Imam ibn ‘Abidin (r.a.) among the Hanafis, and Imam ibn Qudamah (r.a.) among the Hanbalis.  All of these scholars considered themselves followers of the fundamental interpretative principles of their own madzhab, but are on record as having exercised their own gifts of scholarship and judgement in reaching many new verdicts within them.  Imam ad-Dajawi (r.a.) wrote that the major followers of the great a’immah did not simply imitate them as some have claimed.  Imam Abu Yusuf (r.a.) and Imam ash-Shaybani (r.a.) frequently dissented from the position of Imam Abu Hanifah (r.a.).  In fact, it is hard to find a single question of fiqh which is not surrounded by a debate, in which the independent reasoning and ijtihad of the scholars, and their determination to locate the precise truth, are very conspicuous.  We find, for example, Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) determined, in his new madzhab, that the time for maghrib does not extend into the late twilight, shafaq; while his followers departed from this position in order to follow a different dalil.  Similarly, Imam ibn ‘Abd al-Barr (r.a.) and Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi (r.a.) held many divergent views in the madzhab of Imam Malik (r.a.).  It is to these experts that the mujtahidun directed their advice concerning ijtihad, such as Imam ash-Shafi’i’s (r.a.) instruction that “if you find a hadits that contradicts my verdict, then follow the hadits”.

Imam Shihab ad-Din al-Qarafi (r.a.), wrote, in al-Furuq, “Whenever a mujtahid reaches a judgement in which he goes against ijma’, or the basic principles, or an unambiguous text, or a clear qiyas free of any proof which contradicts it, his muqallid is not permitted to convey his view to the people or to give a fatwa in accordance with it.”  He then continued, “However, no one can know whether this has occurred who has not mastered the principles of jurisprudence, clear qiyas, unambiguous texts, and anything that could intervene in these things; and to know this one is obliged to learned uswul al-fiqh and immerse oneself in the ocean of fiqh.”  It is obvious that whatever some writers nowadays like to believe, such counsels were never intended for use by the Islamically-uneducated masses.  Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) was not addressing a crowd of butchers, night watchmen and donkey-drovers.

Other categories of mujtahidun are listed by the uswuli scholars; but the distinctions between them are subtle and not relevant to our theme.  The ‘ulama usually recognise seven different degrees of Muslims from the point of view of their learning, and for those who are interested they are listed here, in order of scholarly status.  The mujtahidun fi ash-shar and the mujtahidun fi al-madzhab have already been mentioned.  Mujtahidun fi al-masa’il are scholars who remain within a school, but are competent to exercise ijtihad on certain aspects within it which they know thoroughly.  Aswhab at-takhrij, resolvers of ambiguity, are those who are competent to ‘indicate which view was preferable in cases of ambiguity, or regarding suitability to prevailing conditions.  Aswhab at-tarjih, people of assessment, are those competent to make comparisons and distinguish the correct, swahih, and the preferred, rajah, and the agreed-upon, mufta biha, views from the weak ones within the madzhab.  Aswhab at-taswhih, people of correction are those who could distinguish between the manifest positions, zhahir ar-riwayah, and the rare and obscure positions, nawadir ar-riwayah, of their madzhab. Muqallidun, the emulators, including all non-scholars.  Of these seven categories, only the first three are considered to be mujtahidun.

The remaining categories can in practice be reduced to two: the muttabi’, follower, who follows his madzhab while being aware of the Qur’an and ahadits and the reasoning, underlying its positions, and the muqallid, emulator, who simply conforms to the madzhab because of his confidence in its scholars, and without necessarily knowing the detailed reasoning behind all its thousands of rulings.  This is explained by Imam ash-Shathibi (r.a.) in the context of the following passage, all of which is quoted here to furnish a further summary of the orthodox position on taqlid.   He wrote in his I’itiswam, “A person obliged to follow the rules of the shari’ah must fall into one of three categories.  He may be a mujtahid, in which case he will practice the legal conclusions to which his ijtihad leads him.  He may be a complete muqallid, unappraised of the knowledge required.  In his case, he must have a guide to lead him, and an arbitrator to give judgements for him, and a scholar to emulate.  Obviously, he follows the guide only in his capacity as a man possessed of the requisite knowledge.  The proof for this is that if he knows, or even suspects, that he does not in fact possess it, it is not permissible for him to follow him or to accept his judgement; in fact, no individual, whether educated or not, should think of following through taqlid someone who he knows is not qualified, in the way that a sick man should not put himself in the hands of someone whom he knows is not a doctor.  He may not have attained to the level of the mujtahidun, but he understands the dalil and its context, and is competent to understand it in order to prefer some rulings over others in certain questions.  In his case, one must either recognise his preferences and views, or not.  If they are recognised, then he becomes like a mujtahid on that issue; if they are not, then he must be classed alone with other ordinary non-specialist Muslims, who are obliged to follow mujtahidun.”

An equivalent explanation of the status of the muttabi’ is given by Imam Amidi (r.a.).  He said, “If a non-scholar, not qualified to make ijtihad, has acquired some of the knowledge required for ijtihad, he must follow the verdicts of the mujtahidun.  This is the view of the correct scholars, although it has been rejected by some of the Mu`tazilites in Baghdad, who state: ‘That is not permissible, unless he obtains a dalil of the correctness of the ijtihad he is following.’  But the correct view is that which we have stated, this being proved by the Qur’an, ijma’ and the intellect.  The Qur’anic proof is Allah’s Statement: ‘If you realise not, ask of those who possess the Message,’ which is a general Commandment to all.  The proof by ijma’ is that ordinary Muslims in the time of the companions and the followers used to ask the mujtahidun, and follow them in their shari’ah judgements, while the learned among them would answer their questions without indicating the dalil.  They would not forbid them from doing this, and this therefore constitutes ijma’ on the absolute permissibility of an ordinary Muslim following the rulings of a mujtahid.”

Imam al-Juwayni (r.a.) defined a muqallid is a Muslim who practices taqlid, which is the shari’ah term for the acceptance by an ordinary person of the judgement of a mufti.  The word ‘mufti’ here means either a mujtahid or someone who authentically transmits the verdict of a mujtahid.  Imam al-Baji (r.a.) said that for the ordinary person, ‘ammi, it is obligatory, wajib, upon him to make taqlid of the ‘ulama.  The actual choice of which mujtahid an ordinary Muslim should follow is clearly a major responsibility. Imam al-Juwayni (r.a.) said a muqallid may only make taqlid of another person after carefully examining his credentials, and obtaining reliable third-party testimony as to his scholarly attainments.  Imam ibn Fuwrak (r.a.), however, held that a mujtahid’s own testimony was sufficient.  Both Imam al-Juwayni (r.a.) and Imam al-Baji (r.a.) agreed that is necessary to follow the best mujtahid available.

Imam ash-Shirazi (r.a.) said, “It is impermissible for someone seeking a fatwa to ask just anyone, lest he ask someone who has no knowledge of the fiqh.  Instead it is wajib for him to ascertain the scholar’s learning and trustworthiness.”

Imam al-Qarafi (r.a.) said, “The salaf were intensely reluctant to give fatawa.”

Imam Malik (r.a.) said, “A scholar should not give fatawa until he is regarded as competent to do so both by himself and by others.”  In other words, the scholars must be satisfied of his qualifications.  Imam Malik (r.a.) did not begin to give fatawa until he had been given ijazat to do so by forty scholars.

Clearly it is recommended for the muqallid to learn as much as he or she is able of the formal proofs of the madzhab.  But it is equally clear that not every Muslim can be a scholar.  Scholarship takes a lot of time, and for the ummah to function properly, most people must have other employment: as accountants, soldiers, butchers, and so forth.  As such, they cannot reasonably be expected to become great ‘ulama as well, even if we suppose that all of them have the requisite intelligence.  The Holy Qur’an Itself States that less well-informed believers should have recourse to qualified experts:

… ask of those who possess the Message. (Surah an-Nahl:43)

Imam al-Buwthi (r.a.) said, “There is ijma’ among the scholars that this verse is a Commandment to whoever does not know a ruling or the dalil for it to follow someone who does.  Almost all the scholars of uswul al-fiqh have made this verse their principle dalil that it is obligatory for an ordinary person to follow a scholar who is a mujtahid.”

Imam ash-Shirazi (r.a.) said, “The dalil for our position is Allah’s Commandment: ‘If you realise not, ask of those who possess the Message.’  For if we forbade taqlid, everyone would need to become an advanced scholar, and no-one would be able to earn anything, and the earth would lie uncultivated.”

Imam Amidi (r.a.), in his Ihkam, said, “The intellectual proof is that if an issue of the furu’ arises for someone who does not possess the qualifications for ijtihad, then he will either not adopt an Islamic ruling at all, and this is a violation of the ijma’, or, alternatively, he will adopt an Islamic ruling, either by investigating the proofs involved, or by taqlid.  But an adequate investigation of the proofs is not possible for him, for it would oblige him, and all humanity, fully to investigate the dala’il pertaining to the issues, thereby distracting them from their sources of income, and leading to the extinction of crafts and the ruin of the world.”

Imam al-Baji (r.a.) said, “One of the dala’il for the legitimacy of following the verdicts of the scholars is our knowledge that anyone who looks into these discussions and seeks to deduce rulings of the shari’ah will need to have the right tools, namely, the science of the rulings of the Qur’an and sunnah, and uswul al-fiqh, the principles of rhetoric and the Arabic language, and other sciences which are not easily acquired, and which most people cannot attain to.  And even if some of them do attain to it, they only do so after long study, investigation and very great effort, which would require that they devote themselves entirely to this and do nothing else; and if ordinary people were under the obligation to do this, there would be no cultivation, commerce, or other employments which are essential for the continuance of humanity - and it is the ijma’ of the ummah that this is something which Allah Ta’ala has not obliged His slaves to do.”  And he continued, “There is, therefore, no alternative for them to following the ‘ulama.”

According to the mufassirun, the people of remembrance, or the Message, are the ‘ulama.  And in another verse, the Muslims are Enjoined to create and maintain a group of specialists who provide authoritative guidance for non-specialists:

… if a contingent from every expedition remained behind, they could devote themselves to studies in religion and admonish the people when they return to them ― that thus they (may learn) to guard themselves (against evil). (Surah at-Tawbah:122)

Given the depth of scholarship needed to understand the Revealed texts accurately, and the extreme warnings we have been given against distorting the Revelation, it is obvious that ordinary Muslims are duty bound to follow expert opinion, rather than rely on their own reasoning and limited knowledge.  This obvious duty was well-known to the early Muslims: the Caliph ‘Umar (r.a.) followed certain rulings of Abu Bakr (r.a.), said, “I would be ashamed before God to differ from the view of Abu Bakr.”  And ibn Mas’ud (r.a.), in turn, despite being a mujtahid in the fullest sense, used in certain issues to follow ‘Umar (r.a.).

According to Imam ash-Sha’bi (r.a.), six of the companions used to give fatawa to the people.  They are ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (r.a.), ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab (r.a.), ‘Ali ibn Abo Thalib, Zayd ibn Tsabit (r.a.), Ubay ibn Ka’b (r.a.), and Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (r.a.).  And out of these, three would abandon their own judgements in favour of the judgements of three others: ‘Abdallah ibn Mas’ud (r.a.) would abandon his own judgement for the judgement of ‘Umar (r.a.), Abu Musa (r.a.) would abandon his own judgement for the judgement of ‘Ali (r.a.), and Zayd (r.a.) would abandon his own judgement for the judgement of Ubay ibn Ka’b (r.a.).

Imam ad-Dajawi (r.a.) said, “The companions and followers used to give fatawa on legal issues to those who asked for them.  At times they would mention the source, if this was necessary, while at other times they would limit themselves to specifying the ruling.”

Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.), in al-Mustaswfa’, explained that the existence of taqlid and fatawa among the companions is a dalil for the necessity of this fundamental distinction.  He wrote, “The proof that taqlid is obligatory is the ijma’ of the companions.  For they used to give fatawa to the ordinary people and did not command them to acquire the degree of ijtihad for themselves.  This is known necessarily and by parallel lines of transmission from both the scholars and the non-scholars among them.”

Imam ibn Khaldun (r.a.), wrote in his al-Muqaddimah, “Not all the companions were qualified to give fatawa, and Islam was not taken from all of them.  That privilege was held only by those who had learnt the Qur’an, knew what it contained by what of abrogated and abrogating passages, ambiguous and perspicuous expressions, and its other special features.”

Imam al-Baji (r.a.) said, “Ordinary Muslims have no alternative but to follow the ‘ulama.  One proof of this is the ijma’ of the companions, for those among them who had not attained the degree of ijtihad used to ask the ‘ulama of the companions for the correct ruling on something which happened to them.  Not one of the companions criticised them for so doing; on the contrary, they gave them fatawa on the issues they had asked about, without condemning them or telling them to derive the rulings themselves.”

A list of the muftiyyun among the companions is given by Imam al-Juwayni (r.a.) included the four khulafah, Thalhah ibn ‘Ubaydillah (r.a.), ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn ‘Awf (r.a.), and Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqasw (r.a.).  Others were not muftiyyun, such as Abu Hurayrah (r.a.), who despite his many narrations of ahadits, was never known for his judgements.  Imam ash-Shirazi (r.a.) confirmed the obvious point that some companions are considered more worthy of being followed in legal matters than others.

This verdict, namely that one is well-advised to follow a great imam as one’s guide to the sunnah, rather than relying on oneself, is particularly binding upon Muslims in countries such as Britain, among whom only a small percentage is even entitled to have a choice in this matter.  This is for the simple reason that unless one knows Arabic, then even if one wishes to read all the ahadits determining a particular issue, one cannot.  For various reasons, including their great length, no more than ten of the basic ahadits collections have been translated into English.  There remain well over three hundred others, including such seminal works as the Musnad of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), the Muswannaf of Imam ibn Abi Shaybah (r.a.), the Swahih of Imam ibn Khuzaymah, the Mustadrak of Imam al-Hakim (r.a.), and many other multi-volume collections, which contain large numbers of sound ahadits which cannot be found in Swahih al-Bukhari, Swahih Muslim, and the other works that have so far been translated.  The Mustadrak of Imam al-Hakim (r.a.) is an important collection of ahadits.  Imam al-Hakim an-Nisaburi (r.a.) considered their accuracy to meet the criteria of Imam al-Bukhari who accuracy and Imam Muslim who accuracy, but which had not been included in their collections.  Kitab az-Zuhd, another book by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.), also contains many ahadits

Even if we assume that the existing translations are entirely accurate, it is obvious that a policy of trying to derive the shari’ah directly from the Book and the sunnah cannot be attempted by those who have no access to the Arabic.  To attempt to discern the shari’ah merely on the basis of the ahadits which have been translated will be to ignore and amputate much of the sunnah, hence leading to serious distortions. 

As we have seen above, the ‘ulama regard a mastery of the Arabic language as one of the essential qualifications for deriving the shari’ah directly from the Qur’an and sunnah.  Imam al-Juwayni (r.a.), stressed this greatly, for example.  Imam al-Juwayni (r.a.) recorded that Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) was so expert in the Arabic language, grammar and rhetoric that at a very young age, he was consulted by the great philologist Imam al-Asma’i (r.a.), who asked his help in editing some early and very difficult collections of Arabic poetry.  We also learn that Imam ibn al-Mubarak (r.a.), the famous traditionalist of Merv, spent more money on learning Arabic than on ahadits, attaching more importance on the former than the latter, and asking the students of ahadits to spend twice as long on Arabic than on ahadits.  Imam al-Asma’i (r.a.) held that someone who studied ahadits without learning grammar was to be categorised with the forgers of ahadits.

Needless to say, the amateurs who deny taqlid and try to derive the rulings for themselves are even more ignorant of the derivative sources of shari’ah than they are of the Qur’an and sunnah.  These other sources do not only include the famous ones such as ijma’ and qiyas.  For instance, the fatawa of the companions are considered by the ‘ulama to be a further important source of legislation.  Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.), throughout his life, taught that diya’, blood money, was increased in cases of crimes committed in the Haramayn or the Sacred Months, and he had no basis for this other than the statements of the companions.

Here are just two examples of this.  The Sunni madzahib, in their rules for the conduct of legal cases, lay down the principle that the canonical punishments, hudud, should not be applied in cases where there is the least ambiguity, and that the qadhi should actively strive to prove that such ambiguities exist.  An amateur reading in the six canonical collections of ahadits will find no confirmation of this.  But the madzhab ruling is based on a hadith narrated by a sound chain, and recorded in the Muswannaf of Imam ibn Abi Shaybah (r.a.), the Musnad of Imam al-Haritsi (r.a.), and the Musnad of Imam Musaddad ibn Musarhad (r.a.).  The text is, “Ward off the hudud by means of ambiguities.”  There is a version of this hadits in Jami’ at-Tirmidzi but it is attached to an isnad which includes Yazid ibn Ziyad, who is weak.

Imam as-Sam’ani (r.a.), in his al-Ansab, narrated the circumstances of this hadits: “A man was found drunk, and was brought to ‘Umar, who ordered the hadd of eighty lashes to be applied.  When this had been done, the man said, ‘Umar, you have wronged me!  I am a slave!’

‘Umar was grief-stricken at this, and recited the Prophetic hadits, ‘Ward off the hudud by means of ambiguities.’”  Slaves receive only half the punishment of free men.

Another example is provided by the practice of istighfar for others during the hajj.  According to a hadits, “Forgiveness is Granted to the hajji, and to those for whom the hajji prays.”  This hadits is not related in any of the collections so far translated into English; but it is narrated, by a sound isnad, in many other collections, including al-Mu’jam as-Saghir of Imam ath-Thabarani (r.a.) and the Musnad of Imam al-Bazzar (r.a.).

Another example pertains to the important practice, recognised by the madzahib, of performing sunnah prayers as soon as possible after the end of maghrib.  The hadits is, “Make haste to perform the two raka’at after maghrib, for they are Raised Up alongside the obligatory prayer.”  The hadits is narrated by Imam ar-Razi (r.a.) in his Jami’.

Because of the traditional pious fear of distorting the laws of Islam, the overwhelming majority of the great scholars of the past, certainly well over ninety-nine percent of them, have adhered loyally to a madzhab.  It is true that in the troubled fourteenth century, a handful of dissenters appeared, such as Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) and Imam ibn al-Qayyim (r.a.), but even these individuals never recommended that semi-educated Muslims should attempt ijtihad without expert help.  The attitude of Imam ibn al-Qayyim (r.a.) is not consistent on this issue.  In some passages of his I’ilam al-Muwaqqi’in, he seemed to suggest that any Muslim is qualified to derive rulings directly from the Qur’an and sunnah.  But in other passages, he took a more intelligent view.  For instance, he wrote, “Is it permissible for a mufti who adheres to the madzhab of his imam to give a fatwa in accordance with a different madzhab if that is more correct in his view?  If he is following the principles of that imam in procedures of ijtihad, and ascertaining the proof-texts, then he is permitted to follow the view of another mujtahid which he considers correct.”  This is a broad approach, but is nonetheless very far from the notion of simply following the ‘dalil’ every time rather than following a qualified interpreter.  This quote and several others are given by Imam al-Buwthi (r.a.) to show the various opinions held by Imam ibn al-Qayyim (r.a.) on this issue, which, according to Imam al-Buwthi (r.a.), reveal ‘remarkable contradictions’.

And in any case, although these authors have recently been resurrected and made prominent, their influence on the orthodox scholarship of classical Islam was negligible, as is suggested by the small number of manuscripts of their works preserved in the great libraries of the Islamic world.  Many of Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) works exist only as single manuscripts; and even the others, when compared to the works of the great scholars such as Imam as-Suyuthi (r.a.) and Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), seem to have been copied only very rarely.

Nonetheless, social turbulences have in the past century thrown up a number of writers who have advocated the abandonment of authoritative scholarship.  The most prominent figures in this campaign were Muhammad ‘Abduh and his pupil, Muhammad Rashid Ridha’.  ‘Abduh, in turn, was influenced by his teacher and collaborator, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani.  Afghani was associated with that transitional ‘Young Ottoman’ generation which created the likes of Namik Kemal and, somewhat later, Zia Gokalp and Sati’ al-Husari: men deeply traumatised by the success of the Western powers and the spectacle of Ottoman military failure, and who sought a cultural renewal by jettisoning historic Muslim culture while maintaining authenticity by retaining a ‘pristine essence’.  In this, they were inspired, consciously or otherwise, by the wider 19th century quest for authenticity: the nationalist philosophers Herder and Le Bon, who had outlined a similar revivalist-essentialist project for France and Germany based on the ‘original sources’ of their national cultures, had been translated and were widely read in the Muslim world at the time.  Afghani was not a profound thinker, but his pamphlets and articles in the journal which he and ‘Abduh edited, al-‘Urwat al-Wutsqah, were highly influential.  Whether he believed in his own pan-Islamic ideology, or indeed in his attenuated and anti-historicist version of Islam, is unclear.  When writing in contexts far from his Muslim readership he often showed an extreme scepticism.  For instance, in his debate with Renan concerning the decline of Arab civilisation, he wrote of Islam, “It is clear that where-ever it becomes established, this religion tried to stifle the sciences and it was marvelously served in its designs by despotism.”  It is hardly surprising that ‘Abduh should have worked so hard to suppress the Arabic translation of this work!

Afghani’s reformist ideology led him to found a national political party in Egypt, al-Hizb al-Wathani, including not only Muslims, but in which ‘all Christians and Jews who lived in the land of Egypt were eligible for membership.  This departure from traditional Islamic notions of solidarity can be seen as a product of Afghani’s specific attitude to taqlid.  But his pupil’s own fatawa were often far more radical, perhaps because ‘Abduh’s ‘partiality for the British authority which pursued similar lines of reform and gave him support.  The British governor of Egypt, Lord Cromer, wrote, “For many years I gave to Mohammed ‘Abduh all the encouragement in my power.” An example is the declaration in ‘Abduh’s tafsir, much of which is by Ridha’, that the erection of statues is halal.

The same argument was being invoked by Ataturk, who, when asked why he was erecting a statue of himself in Ankara, claimed that “the making of statues is not forbidden today as it was when Muslims were just out of idolatry, and that it is necessary for the Turks to practice this art, for it is one of the arts of civilization.”

Dazzled by the triumph of the West, and informed in subtle ways by their own well-documented commitment to Freemasonry, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Ridha’ urged Muslims to throw off the shackles of taqlid, and to reject the authority of the four schools.  Today, in some Arab capitals, especially where the indigenous tradition of orthodox scholarship has been weakened, it is common to see young Arabs filling their homes with every ahadits collection they can lay their hands upon, and poring over them in the apparent belief that they are less likely to misinterpret this vast and complex literature than Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.), Imam Ahmad (r.a.), and the other great a’immah.  This irresponsible approach, although still not widespread, is predictably opening the door to sharply divergent opinions, which have seriously damaged the unity, credibility and effectiveness of the Islamic movement, and provoked sharp arguments over issues settled by the great a’mmah over a thousand years ago.

A poorly-argued but well-financed example of a book in this category is a short text by the Saudi writer al-Khajnadi, of which an amended version exists in English.  This text aroused considerable concern among the ‘ulama when it first appeared in the 1960s, and Imam Sa’id Ramadhan al-Buwthi’s (r.a.) book, al-Lamadzhabiyyah, was, in fact, written specifically in refutation of it.  The second and subsequent editions of Imam al-Buwthi’s (r.a.) work, which shows how Khajnadi systematically misquoted and distorted the texts, contain a preface which includes an account of a meeting between Imam al-Buwthi (r.a.) and the Albanian writer Naswir ad-Din al-Albani, who was associated with Khajnadi’s ideas.  For a better idea of who al-Albani is, refer to this article: al-Albani: A Concise Guide to the Chief Innovator of Our Time.

The three-hour meeting, which was taped, was curious inasmuch as al-Albani denied that Khajnadi was stating that all Muslims can derive rulings directly from the Qur’an and sunnah.  For instance where Khajnadi made the apparently misleading statement that “As for the madzahib, these are the views and ijtihad of the ‘ulama on certain issues; and neither Allah nor His messenger have compelled anyone to follow them.”  al-Albani explains that ‘anyone’, ahad, here in fact refers to ‘anyone qualified to make ijtihad’.  al-Albani went on to cite several other instances of how readers had unfortunately misunderstood Khajnadi’s intention.

Imam al-Buwthi (r.a.), quite reasonably, replied to the Albanian writer, “No scholar would ever use language in such a loose way and make such generalisations, and intend to say something so different to what he actually and clearly says; in fact, no-one would understand his words as you have interpreted them.”

al-Albani’s response was, “The man was of Uzbek origin, and his Arabic was that of a foreigner, so he was not able to make himself as clear as an Arab would.  He is dead now, and we should give him the benefit of the doubt and impose the best interpretation we can on his words!”  But al-Albani, despite his protestations, is reliably said to believe until his death that taqlid is shirk.  For the full transcript, and Imam al-Buwthi’s (r.a.) refutation of this kufr, refer here: Why Does One Have to Follow a Madzhab.

It is common now to see young activists prowling the mosques, criticising other worshippers for what they believe to be defects in their worship, even when their victims are following the verdicts of some of the great a’immah of Islam.  The unpleasant, Pharisaic atmosphere generated by this activity has the effect of discouraging many less committed Muslims from attending the mosque at all.  No one now recalls the view of the early ‘ulama, which was that Muslims should tolerate divergent interpretations of the sunnah as long as these interpretations have been held by reputable scholars.  As Imam Sufyan ats-Tsawri (r.a.) said, “If you see a man doing something over which there is a debate among the scholars, and which you yourself believe to be forbidden, you should not forbid him from doing it.”

The ‘ulama also quote the following guiding principles of Islamic jurisprudence: that which is wrong, munkar, need not be condemned as objectively wrong unless all scholars agree in ijma’ that it is so.  Imam ad-Dajawi (r.a.) also made the following points: “The differences of opinion among the ‘ulama are a great rahmah upon this ummah.  ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz declared, ‘It would not please me if the companions of Muhammad (s.a.w.) had not disagreed, for had they not done so, no mercy would have come down.’”

Imam Yahya ibn Sa’id (r.a.), one of the great ahadits narrators among the tabi’un, said, “The people of knowledge are a people of broadness.  They continue to give fatawa which are different from each other, and no scholar reproaches another scholar for his opinion.”  However, if ordinary people took their rulings straight from the Qur’an and sunnah, as a certain faction desires, their opinions would be far more discordant than this, and the four schools would no longer be four, but thousands.  Should that day come, it will bring disaster upon disaster for the Muslims - may we never live to see it!  The alternative to this policy is, of course, a disunity and rancour which will poison and cripple the Muslim community from within.

This was understood as early as the 18th century.  Imam al-Buwthi (r.a.) quoted Shah Wali’ullah al-Dahlawi (r.a.) as observing that the ummah up to the present date has unanimously agreed that the four madzahib may be followed by way of taqlid.  He said, “In this there are manifest benefits and advantages, especially in these days in which enthusiasm has dimmed greatly, and souls have been given to drink of their own passions, so that everyone with an opinion is delighted with his opinion.”  This reminds us that Islam is not a totalitarian religion which denies the possibility and legitimacy of variant opinions.

One could add that ‘that day of rancour’ seems already to be upon us, and that the resulting widening of the argument on even the most simple juridical matters is no longer tempered by the erstwhile principles of politeness and toleration.  The fiercely insulting debate between Naswir ad-Din al-Albani and the Saudi writer, al-Tuwayjiri is a typical instance.  The former writer, in his book, Hijab al-Mar’ah al-Muslimah, used the Qur’an and sunnah to defend his views that a woman may expose her face in public; while the latter, in his as-Sarim al-Mashhur ‘ala Ahl al-Tabarruj wa as-Sufur, attacked al-Albani in the most vituperative terms for failing to draw from the Revealed sources and supposedly obvious conclusion that women must always veil their faces from non-mahram men.  Other examples of this bitter hatred generation by the non-madzhab style of discord, based in attempts at direct istinbath, are unfortunately many.  Hardly any mosque or Islamic organisation nowadays seems to be free of them.

The solution is to recall the principle referred to above, namely that two mujtahidun can hold differing opinions on the furu’, and still be rewarded by Allah (s.w.t.), while both opinions will constitute legitimate fiqh.  This is clearly indicated in the Qur’an:

And remember David and Solomon, when they gave judgment in the matter of the field into which the sheep of certain people had strayed by night: We did Witness their judgment.  To Solomon, We Inspired the (right) understanding of the matter: to each (of them) We Gave judgment and knowledge; it was Our Power that made the hills and the birds celebrate Our Praises with David: it was We Who Did (these things). (Surah al-Anbiya’:78-79)

The two prophets had given different fatawa; and Sulayman’s (a.s.) was the more correct, but as prophets were infallible, ma’sum, hence Dawud’s (a.s.) judgement was also acceptable.  Understanding this is the key to recreating the spirit of tolerance among Muslims.  Shaykh Omer Bilmen (r.a.) summarised the jurists’ position as follows: “The fundamentals of the religion, namely basic doctrine, the obligatory status of the forms of worship, and the ethical virtues, are the subject of universal agreement, an agreement to which everyone is religiously obliged to subscribe.  Those who diverge from the rulings accepted by the overwhelming majority of ordinary Muslims are considered to be the people of bid’ah and misguidance, since the dala’il establishing them are clear.  But it is not a violation of any Islamic obligation for differences of opinion to exist concerning the furu’ and juz’iyyat which devolve from these basic principles.  In fact, such differences are a necessary expression of the Divine wisdom.”

A further point needs elucidating.  If the jurists may legitimately disagree, how should the Islamic state apply a unified legal code throughout its territories?  Clearly, the law must be the same everywhere.  Imam al-Qarafi (r.a.) states the answer clearly: “The head of state gives a judgement concerning the ijtihad, and this does away with the disagreement, and obliges those who follow ijtihad verdicts which conflict with the head of state’s to adopt his verdict.” Obviously this is a counsel specifically for qudhat, and applies only to questions of public law, not to rulings on worship.

In a Western-influenced global culture in which people are urged from early childhood to think for themselves and to challenge established authority, it can sometimes be difficult to muster enough humility to recognise one’s own limitations.  Probably because of an underlying insecurity, many young Muslim activists cannot bear to admit that they might not know something about their religion.  And this despite the example of Imam Malik (r.a.), who, when asked forty questions about fiqh, answered, “I do not know”, “Laa adri”, to thirty-six of them.

How many egos nowadays can bear to admit ignorance even once?  They should remember the saying, “He who makes most haste to give fatawa, makes most haste to the Fire.”  Imam Taj ad-Din as-Subki (r.a.), in Mu’id an-Ni’am wa Mubid an-Niqam, condemned those who made haste to give fatawa, relying on the apparent meaning of the Revealed phrases without thinking deeply about them, thereby dragging other people into ignorance, and themselves into the agonies of the Fire.  Even Imam ash-Sha’bi (r.a.), out of his modesty and adab, and his awareness of the great complexity of the fiqh, did not consider himself a mufti, only a naqil, transmitter of texts.

We are all a little like Pharaoh: our egos are by nature resistant to the idea that anyone else might be much more intelligent or learned than ourselves.  The belief that ordinary Muslims, even if they know Arabic, are qualified to derive rulings of the shari’ah for themselves, is an example of this egotism running wild.  To young people proud of their own judgement, and unfamiliar with the complexity of the sources and the brilliance of authentic scholarship, this can be an effective trap, which ends by luring them away from the orthodox path of Islam and into an unintentional agenda of provoking deep divisions among the Muslims.  The fact that all the great scholars of the religion, including the ahadits experts, themselves belonged to madzahib, and required their students to belong to madzahib, seems to have been forgotten.  Self-esteem has won a major victory here over common sense and Islamic responsibility.

Imam ad-Dajawi (r.a.) said, on the idea that ordinary people should not follow madzahib, “By Allah, this view is nothing less than an attempt to fling the door wide open for people’s individual preferences, thereby turning the Book and the sunnah into playthings to be manipulated by those deluded fools, driven by their compounded ignorance and their corrupt imaginings.  It is obvious that personal preferences vary enormously, and that ignorant people will arrive at their conclusions on the basis of their own emotions and imaginings.  So what will be the result if we put them in authority over the shari’ah, so that they are able to interpret it in the light of their own opinions, and play with it according to their preferences?”

The Holy Qur’an Commands Muslims to use their minds and reflective capacities; and the issue of following qualified scholarship is an area in which this faculty must be very carefully deployed.  The basic point should be appreciated that no categoric difference exists between uswul al-fiqh and any other specialised science requiring lengthy training.  Imam Sa’id Ramadhan al-Buwthi (r.a.), who has articulated the orthodox response to the anti-madzhab trend in his book, ‘Non-Madzhabism: The Greatest Bid’ah Threatening the Islamic Shari’ah’, likes to compare the science of deriving rulings to that of medicine.  “If ones child is seriously ill”, he asked, “does one look for oneself in the medical textbooks for the proper diagnosis and cure, or should one go to a trained medical practitioner?”  Clearly, sanity dictates the latter option.  And so it is in matters of religion, which are in reality even more important and potentially hazardous: we would be both foolish and irresponsible to try to look through the sources ourselves, and become our own muftiyyun.  Instead, we should recognise that those who have spent their entire lives studying the sunnah and the principles of law are far less likely to be mistaken than we are.

The same image is used by Shaykh Imran Nyazee.  He wrote in his “Introduction to The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer”, “Taqlid, as distinguished from blind conservatism, is the foundation of all relationships based on trust, like those between a patient and his doctor, a client and his lawyer, and a business and its accountant.  It is a legal method for ensuring that judges who are not fully-qualified mujtahidun may be able to decide cases in the light of precedents laid down by independent jurists.”  He continued, “The system of taqlid implies that as long as the layman does not get the training for becoming a doctor he cannot practice medicine, for example.  In the case of medicine such a person may be termed a quack and may even be punished today, but in the case of Islamic law he is assuming a much graver responsibility: he is claiming that the opinion he is expressing is the law intended by Allah.”

Another metaphor might be added to this, this time borrowed from astronomy.  We might compare the Qur’anic verses and the ahadits to the stars.  With the naked eye, we are unable to see many of them clearly; so we need a telescope.  If we are foolish, or proud, we may try to build one ourselves.  If we are sensible and modest, however, we will be happy to use one built for us by Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) or Imam ibn Hanbal (r.a.), and refined, polished and improved by generations of great astronomers.  A madzhab is, after all, nothing more than a piece of precision equipment enabling us to see Islam with the maximum clarity possible.  If we use our own devices, our amateurish attempts will inevitably distort our vision.

A third image might also be deployed.  An ancient building, for instance the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, might seem imperfect to some who worship in it.  Young enthusiasts, burning with a desire to make the building still more exquisite and well-made, and no doubt, more in conformity with their own time-bound preferences, might gain access to the crypts and basements which lie under the structure, and, on the basis of their own understanding of the principles of architecture, try to adjust the foundations and pillars which support the great edifice above them.  They will not, of course, bother to consult professional architects, except perhaps one or two whose rhetoric pleases them nor will they be guided by the books and memoirs of those who have maintained the structure over the centuries.  Their zeal and pride leaves them with no time for that.  Groping through the basements, they bring out their picks and drills, and set to work with their usual enthusiasm.

There is a real danger that Sunni Islam is being treated in a similar fashion.  The edifice has stood for centuries, withstanding the bitterest blows of its enemies.  Only from within can it be weakened.  No doubt, Islam has its intelligent foes among whom this fact is well-known.  The spectacle of the disunity and fitan which divided the early Muslims despite their superior piety, and the solidity and cohesiveness of Sunnism after the final codification of the shari’ah in the four schools of the great a’immah, must have put ideas into many a malevolent head.  This is not to suggest in any way that those who attack the great madhhabs are the conscious tools of Islam’s enemies.  But it may go some way to explaining why they will continue to be well-publicised and well-funded, while the orthodox alternative is starved of resources.  With every Muslim now a proud mujtahid, and with taqlid dismissed as a sin rather than a humble and necessary virtue, the divergent views which caused such pain in our early history will surely break surface again.  Instead of four madzahib in harmony, we will have a billion madzahib in bitter and self-righteous conflict.  No more brilliant scheme for the destruction of Islam could ever have been devised.  It hardly needs adding, as a final observation, that nothing in all the above should be understood as an objection to the extension and development of the fiqh in response to modern conditions.  Much serious ijtihad is called for; the point being made in this paper is simply that such ijtihad must be carried out by scholars qualified to do so.


Popular posts from this blog

In Saudi Arabia, Mawlid is Bid'ah, the King's Birthday is Fine

Singapore Bans Ismail Menk from Entry

Some Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in Art