The Madhahib (Schools of Fiqh)

Part I: Historical Background

By Safa Alshiraida

Muslims all over the world aspire to achieve their common goal of a united Muslim ummah that will be able to guide humanity to harmony, peace and happiness.

One of the issues of unity (or disunity) is whether Muslims should follow a certain school of thought (madhab, plural madhahib) in fiqh, especially one of the four classical madhahib: Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, or Hanbali.

All Muslims agree that if someone is a scholar, well versed in Islamic subjects and the Arabic language, then s/he is qualified to deal directly with the original sources of Islamic jurisprudence and to reach their decision on interpretation of Qur’an, hadith, and the Prophetic traditions (Sunnah).

While we may argue about how stringent or lenient should the qualifications be, or on the rules to follow in reaching the most appropriate decision in one’s opinion, few would argue that the number of scholars qualified for this task are very few compared to the number of Muslims in the world.

This means that the vast majority of Muslims will be following the interpretations and opinions of Muslim scholars whom they trust and feel comfortable with. Following the scholars can take different forms. Some people will adopt one particular madhab exclusively, others will follow the comparative work of the madhahib done by scholars such as Syed Sabiq in “Fiqh-us-Sunnah”, and still others will follow the rulings of individual scholars, however they are derived, even if they are outside of the classical madhahib. Whether we like it or not, most of us are muqallideen (followers) and definitely not mujtahideen.

Historical Background

This leads to iIjtihad, an Arabic word meaning to do one’s best. Ijtihad is defined in the field of fiqh to be the exertion of effort by a qualified person to his/her full capacity to deduce legal rulings from specific pieces of evidence. Historically,ijtihad goes back to the days of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). He sent the great companion Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) to Yemen as his emissary among the faithful and as a judge. The Prophet asked Muadh how would he reach a decision. “I will go to the book of Allah,” Muadh answered. “If I find nothing on the subject, I will look in the tradition of the Prophet. If I find nothing, I will use my ijtihad without hesitation.” “Thanks to Allah who guided the messenger of His Prophet to what pleases the Prophet,” the Messenger of Allah said approvingly.

Ijtihad continued during the life of the Prophet, and the lives of his companions. During the life of the Prophet, his companions would present their opinions to him and he would correct them as necessary. However, after the death of the Prophet this was not possible, and so the ijma’ (consensus) of the companions on an issue would be the seal of approval. However, following the breakdown of political and religious leadership in the Islamic state, scholars in various parts of the state were obliged to make individual rulings, without even the benefit of close consultation with other scholars scattered around the world, reaching a consensus being a distant dream.

The emergence of the madhahib can be summarized as a process of evolution over many centuries that was influenced by many factors such as geography, politics, the focus of the scholarly elite, the degree of social sophistication, and personalities of proponents and opponents of a school of thought.

Although each madhab is identified by its founder, it should be noted that its heritage is the collective contribution of many great and learned scholars who revisited many issues and sometimes would give an opinion that differed from the founder’s. While we identify four main madhahib today, we should note that they were not always four. There were great scholars with good followings like al-Awzai in Syria and Dawood al-Zahiri in Andalusia, to mention two. However, for various reasons their followings declined and became extinct even though their opinions are not ignored by Muslim scholars today, who consider them in their reviews.

What differentiates the madhahib are usually the parameters considered before issuing an opinion. While they do not differ in reliance of the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and consensus of Muslim scholars, they differ for example in the use of analogy, traditions of the people of Madinah, and the usage of a hadith narrated by a single person. This, in turn, leads to different opinions on a single issue, not only between the madhahib but also, and not infrequently, within the madhab itself.

However, we should not lose sight of a few important facts:

1. There are no differences on the basic tenets of Islam. The differences start at issues of tertiary nature, and lower. They are not primary, or even secondary, issues of faith.

2. The scholars of different madhahib maintained an attitude of respect and acceptance toward each other. The different opinions did not lead them to personal attacks on their counterparts.

3. The ruler cannot force people to follow a certain opinion unless it falls within the public domain where the shari’ah acknowledges the right of the ruler to decide or adopt a stand on such an issue. An example of this is declaring the beginning of Ramadan or Eid. The ruler will declare it and Muslims must follow that decision.

4. Notwithstanding point 3, the ruler may adopt and enforce a single legal code based on one madhab or selection of madhahib to ensure that court rulings are consistent and fair for everyone.

The Islamic revival in the 20th century was accompanied by an effort to revive fiqh and issue opinions on many new issues such as insurance, interest, letters of credit, tenders, fertilization, etc. These, and others, are real issues that continue to require ijtihad from scholars today.

When dealing with such issues, most Muslim scholars would canvass all previous rulings and precedents regardless of the school of opinion it belonged to. In issuing their ijtihad on these novel issues, they rarely declare it as following one of the schools of thought. Rather, one would see an amalgamation of various previous opinions into one opinion, or more, dealing with the issue at hand.

Efforts at revival of fiqh were not restricted to new issues. Many old issues were also revisited and scholars would side with one of the old opinions as the most authentic. Most notable scholars in this category are Imam Muhammad Abdo, Shaikh Muhammad Rasheed Rida, Shaikh Syed Sabiq, Shaikh Nasiruddin al-Albani and Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz (may Allah’s mercy be on them).

Unfortunately, faced with several unresolved contradictions among the rulings of the madhahib, some Muslims have chosen to reject the madhahib and their rulings, claiming that they will be guided only by the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Conversely, others take the position that despite these contradictions, the madhahib are more or less divinely ordained and therefore one need only choose one of them and follow it without question. Both of these outcomes are undesirable. The latter perpetuates sectarianism that split the ranks of Muslims in the past and which continues to do so today. The former position of rejecting the madhahib in their entirety, and consequently the fiqh of earlier generations, leads inevitably to extremism and deviation when those who rely exclusively on the Qur’an and the Sunnah attempt to apply shari’ah law to new situations that were not specifically ruled on in either the Qur’an or the Sunnah.

Clearly, both of these attitudes are serious threats to the solidarity and purity of a balanced, authentic, and non-partisan understanding of Islam. As the Prophet (pbuh) stated, “The best generation is my generation and then those who follow them, and then those who follow them”. An obvious deduction is the fact that the rulings of older scholars of note are more likely to represent the true intentions deducible from the Qur’an and the sunnah. These older rulings – the basis of fiqh – are therefore important links and guidelines that cannot wisely be ignored in our study and continued application of Allah’s laws. It stands to reason that our knowledge and correct application of these laws depend upon a sound knowledge of the evolution of fiqh over the ages. Similarly, a study of this development automatically embraces a study of the evolution of the madhahib and their important contributions to fiqh, as well as the reasons for apparent contradictions in some of their rulings.

One of the major challenges to the civilizational project of this ummah in the modern age is to discover a way to foster creativity and original thinking, to adapt to the changing circumstances of our times, to remain relevant to humanity at large, and to do all that while remaining firmly rooted in our tradition that connects us to the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and to the divine revelation.

A Reality Check

It is a fact that most people today are currently unqualified to make ijtihad on their own.. As stated earlier, while we may debate the exact qualifications of a mujtahid, few would argue that there are indeed precious few of them in this age. It logically follows that we should follow the opinions of scholars whom we feel comfortable with and think they are both knowledgeable and trustworthy. Allah (subhanahu wa ta’aala) tells us, “Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.” The reality of the matter is that taqlid, in principle, is inescapable for the majority of Muslims today. Even those who clamor against it and vilify the process in the harshest possible terms, wind up following someone who claims to be ruling according to the Qu’ran and Sunnah. Their stance quickly degenerates into the most bigoted form of intolerance where they bestow upon a handful of scholars of their choosing the ability to rule according to the Qur’an and Sunnah while denying others’ ability to do the same. On the other side is yet another extreme that has reared its ugly head in this day and age whereby each person becomes his/her own reference and we descend into a legal and moral chaos that can only be described as sophistic. When that path is followed nothing remains of Islam except its “rasm”: the name and the attendant symbols that have no bearing on the bulk of the human’s life. The challenge to us is to outline the middle path between these extremes.

A Necessary Distinction

Before proceeding further, we must reclaim a distinction that was maintained by scholars of usool across the ages. We must understand that in every age from the time of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, onward, the majority of the people were considered lay people in the area of fiqh. That meant that their interest in fiqh stopped at the desire to know how to practice. Whenever such persons needed to know the Islamic ruling on an issue, they would simply seek out a qualified scholar who could convey to them the ruling. The “scholar” need not be a mujtahid him/herself so long as he/she was capable of transmitting a reliable fatwa according to some accepted ijtihad. Indeed, the lay person did not inquire much about the status of the mufti’s scholarship or about the ultimate source of the fatwa. Furthermore, there was no obligation upon the lay person to ask the same mufti every time a question arose. More often than not, the person of the mufti questioned was purely a matter of convenience and access. Scholars encapsulated this entire situation in the simple rule that, “madhab al ‘ammee, madhab mufteehi”, meaning that the lay person does not have a particular school of thought, rather his school of thought is that of whoever issues him a legal ruling on a given question.

This rule remains the path for the majority of people today, including people who are activists, or workers for the cause of Allah. Even those who call to the path of Allah and teach and motivate others to follow that path may not in many cases have cause to depart from the status of a lay person in issues of fiqh. In those cases, they teach what they have learnt and they refer people to the same sources that they have utilized without any claim of scholarship, authority, or exclusivity. Once a person determines that he/she will study fiqh more closely and depart the status of a lay person, then that should be the time when the issue of madhahib arises. We cannot over-emphasize the amount of damage that has been done and continues to be done to the state of Muslims as a result of ignoring this simple distinction. The question of madhahib should not even be a question except for the specialist student of fiqh. For all others, their entire obligation before Allah (swt) is to “ask those with knowledge” without specificity or restriction to any particular school of thought or scholar.

We will discuss, inshaAllah, in Part II a formula for the non-lay, i.e. those who wish to acquire more systematic and specialized knowledge in order to worship Allah (swt) with a higher level of understanding and in order to be able to preserve the Deen for future generations.

The Madhahib (Schools of Fiqh)

Part II: A Succinct Formula

By Safa Alshiraida

We presented in Part I of this article a historical background of the evolution of the madhahib (schools of fiqh) and ijtihad (exertion of effort by a qualified person to his/her full capacity to deduce legal rulings from specific pieces of evidence).

We mentioned that during the life of the Prophet, his companions would present their opinions to him and he would correct them as necessary. However, after the death of the Prophet this was not possible, and so the ijma’ (consensus) of the companions on an issue would be the seal of approval. We said that the emergence of the madhahib could be summarized as a process of evolution over many centuries that was influenced by many factors such as geography, politics, the focus of the scholarly elite, the degree of social sophistication, and personalities of proponents and opponents of a school of thought.

We mentioned also that these madhahib had no differences on the basic tenets of Islam and that the scholars of different madhahib maintained an attitude of respect and acceptance toward each other.

One of the major challenges to the civilizational project of this ummah in the modern age is to discover a way to foster creativity and original thinking, to adapt to the changing circumstances of our times, to remain relevant to humanity at large, and to do all that while remaining firmly rooted in our tradition that connects us to the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and to the divine revelation.

It is a fact that most people today are currently unqualified to make ijtihad on their own.. Taqlid is inescapable for the majority of Muslims today. The majority of the people are considered lay people in the area of fiqh. That meant that their interest in fiqh stopped at the desire to know how to practice. Whenever such persons needed to know the Islamic ruling on an issue, they would simply seek out a qualified scholar who could convey to them the ruling.

A Succinct Formula

For the non-lay, i.e. those who wish to acquire more systematic and specialized knowledge in order to worship Allah (swt) with a higher level of understanding and in order to be able to preserve the Deen for future generations, Imam al-Banna laid out a succinct formula. By the grace of Allah alone, his succinct statement accommodates all the detailed views on this subject that have validity based on the revelation of Allah and the practice of the believers across the ages. We in MAS consider this to be the formula that is best capable of bringing together all Muslims and allowing us to maintain the diversity that Allah sanctioned for us without jeopardizing the unity that He required of us.

Al-Imam al-Banna said, “It is permissible for each Muslim who has not attained the level of independent examination of the evidence to imitate an Imam of the Deen. It is desirable for him to study the evidence cited by his Imam, and to accept every guidance given to him with supporting evidence so long as he accepts the trustworthiness and ability of the person giving him this guidance.”

In keeping with our discussion in the foregoing section, this principle deliberately does not apply to the lay person, hence the statement that “it is permissible.” If the Imam had said, “It is obligatory,” then even the lay person would have been included in the requirement to follow an Imam. For someone who has not reached the level of independent examination of the evidence the only options are to be a lay person seeking each fatwa when needed, or to follow the path of taqlid to acquire systematic knowledge of the rules of fiqh.

The taqlid required by Al-Imam Al-Banna is to follow an Imam of the Deen. In choosing this phrase, the Imam opened the door to two different types of taqlid:

1. To follow one of the four recognized schools of thought; or

2. To follow a living scholar recognized for his/her scholarship.

An example of the latter method would be to follow, say, Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, or Sh. Abdullah Ould Boyeh, or Dr. Mohammad Said Ramadan Al-Booty and to take their fatwas as one’s guide.

It is significant here that al-Imam al-Banna’s choice of phrase leaves the door open to both possibilities. While following a madhab is a viable option, there is nothing divinely ordained about these four specific schools. Furthermore, it is undeniable that there have been cases where qualified scholars have deemed the position of the madhahib to be rooted in the circumstances of a particular time and place and that a different fatwa is more true to the maqasid(purpose) of the shari’ah. In fact, al-Imam al-Banna himself noted in some of his letters the necessity for the Muslims to benefit from the opinions of the previous scholars while recognizing that some of that heritage was colored by the time in which it was formulated. Finally, the objective here is to accommodate all muslims whose views in this matter have a valid basis in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Therefore one cannot exclude those who wish to follow a contemporary scholar because, for example, his rulings have the benefit of understanding the circumstances of our lives today and are more likely to be relevant and practical.

We should also note at this juncture that no other scholar, no matter how staunch his support is for the following of the madhahib, has argued against this position in principle. In theory, all scholars would agree that given a mujtahid, people have the right to make taqlid of that mujtahid. The arguments that have been presented invariably center about the quality of the present-day mujtahid and the level of verification and sifting that his views have been subjected to in comparison to the established madhahib.

Differing on which is the best path is acceptable. Discussing it in an atmosphere of love and brotherhood, and with academic rigor and conviction is also acceptable and desirable if it is with the intention of elucidating the truth. In the final analysis, we must recognize that each position has been maintained by knowledgeable and honest scholars.

As noted earlier, following the scholars can take different forms. Some people will adopt one particular madhab exclusively, others will follow the comparative work of the madhahib done by scholars such as Syed Sabiq in “Fiqh-us-Sunnah”, and still others will follow the rulings of individual scholars, however they are derived, even if they are outside of the classical madhahib. We should understand and realize that all of these ways are acceptable since in all cases we are referring to scholars who are capable of making these judgments.

Differences in some side issues in fiqh are unavoidable. They cannot be helped, because the basis of Islam is the glorious Qur’an and the sunnahSunnah of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and there could quite easily be great differences in the interpretation of these sources. This explains the differences amongst the Companions themselves. These differences continued after them and will continue till the Day of Judgment. When Caliph Abu Ja’afar Al-Mansoor desired the people to confine themselves to the Muwatta of Imam Malik, the latter made a very wise statement: ‘The Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) spread into different places, and every one of them had vast knowledge. If you will enforce a single point of view, mischief (fitna) is bound to occur.’

There is no inherent defect in differing. What is objectionable is that one should fanatically follow one’s own opinion, then and then seek to enforce that opinion on others and then pay no regard to their opinion. This stand about differing patched up many discords. Zaid has said: ‘It is sufficient for the people to be united on matters that would make a Muslim a true Muslim.’ And the adoption of this point of view is necessary for an organization that is working in an area full of differences and hostilities; and the differences too are in those matters in which there is no need for differences and enmity.

The Path to Growth

The final section of Imam al-Banna’s formula describes the growth path for the individual once he/she has chosen to systematically study the rules of fiqh and taken the first step by choosing an Imam to follow. The second step after the simple taqlid is to begin to study the evidence and methodology used by the mujtahid (whether that mujtahid is a single person or an entire school of thought). Clearly, this step may only come after the person has first become grounded in the opinions of his/her Imam. This reflects the traditional method of teaching Islamic rulings where the student first studies the furoo’ of a given madhab and understands them in detail before moving on to the usool of the madhab to learn the evidence for the furoo’. If the student has chosen to learn the methodology of a particular scholar instead of one of the four schools, he/she should ensure that they have a path to studying the evidence/methodology of that scholar. Otherwise, the person is doing him/herself a disservice because he/she will not be able to continue a methodological and systematic study of the Islamic sciences and will either have to start over, to abandon the quest altogether, or to follow some random method which is tantamount to following hawa(desires). We ask Allah to protect us from the path of hawa.

Once a student has become well versed with the evidence and methodology of the school of thought that he/she follows, the student then becomes capable of evaluating the evidence presented to him/her by a trustworthy and capable source. The student becomes able to depart with good reason from the madhab in which he/she was trained on selected issues. This claim is not such an innovative claim, and it does not require an unattainable level of knowledge. Imam An-Nawawi quotes (and apparently endorses the view of) the great scholar of hadith Sh. Abu Amr ibn As-Salah outlining the conditions for a follower of the Shafi’i madhab to abandon the madhab on a given point in favor of an authentic hadith that seems to contradict the opinion of the madhab. His conditions were simple:

1. Some qualified mujtahid used this hadith in the way that the student has understood it; and

2. The Shafi’i scholars do not have a convincing response to the hadith.

An intelligent student who exerts him/herself to research a given issue is fully capable of meeting these two conditions. In view of that, it is not reasonable to require that an intelligent student forbid him/herself from examining the evidences for various rulings and evaluate the positions of already established schools of fiqh according to this. This is unreasonable for an advanced student, let alone someone who is a qualified scholar in his own right.

Finally, we note that the next step on this path would, in principle, be the level of an independent and absolute mujtahid. Al-Imam al-Banna does not mention this, as it is very rare. To our knowledge, there is no scholar at present who claims to have reached that lofty goal.

Conclusion

In summary, the issue of following madhahib may be resolved within the following parameters:

The issue does not apply to the majority of Muslims who are in fact lay people and should not take up any of their energy or be discussed by them. Their entire obligation before Allah (swt) is to “ask those with knowledge” without specificity or restriction;

For those who wish to systematically seek knowledge, their first station must be taqlid;

Taqlid may be achieved by following one of the four schools of fiqh but it may also be achieved by following any qualified and trustworthy scholar living today;

While both options are open, the established schools of fiqh have the advantage of the extensive study and review to which their views have been subjected over the centuries;

As a student advances in knowledge, he/she should begin to study the evidence and methodology of his/her school of thought;

Once a student attains a solid grounding in the understanding of the evidence and methodology of the madhab, he/she should be open to accepting the counsel of others regarding issues where the weight of the evidence tends to contradict the madhab; and

We may differ on the best method for a muqallid to follow, and we may differ on the level of knowledge that a student must reach before engaging in the evaluation of evidence across schools of thought. However, these differences should be discussed in an atmosphere of brotherhood and truth seeking, and with academic rigor and objectivity. They should not become sources of enmity, conflict, or disunity.

Further readings on the subject:

Abu Aminah Bilal Philips, “The Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madh-habs”, International Islamic Publishing House, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1998

Hassan al-Banna, “Message of the Teachings.”

Hassan Al-Banna, “Our Mission”

Hassan Al-Banna, “Message of the Fifth Conference”

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism”

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase”

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, “Towards a Sound Awakening: Renovating Religion and Promoting Life”

Al-Nawawi, Introduction to “Al-Majmoo’ Sharh Al-Muhadhdhab”

Al-Booty, “Al-laa madhhabiyya akhtar bid’a tuhaddid ash-Sharee’a al-Islamiyya”

Al-Ghazaly, “Dustoor al-Wahda Ath-Thaqaafiyya bayna-l-Muslimeen”

Saeed Hawwa, “Fi Afaq At-Ta’aleem”

Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, “Evolution of Fiqh: Islamic Law and the Madhahib”

 


 

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One comment on “The Madhahib (Schools of Fiqh)

  1. [...] : The Quran Blog – Enlighten Yourself Etiketler: Fiqh, Madhahib, Schools Bu yazı Cumartesi, 26 Haziran 2010, 01:32 tarihinde [...]

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