The Four Schools of Thought in Islam (Madhab)
"There are some people who say that Taqleed (following the madhhab of one imam) is haram (prohibited) in Shariah. They insist that only the Qur'an al-Kareem and Sunnah should be followed by a true Muslim, and it is tantamount to the shirk that some human being is being followed in the matters of Shariah. They also claim that all the madhahib formed such as Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali schools are created one to two hundred years after the Most Beloved Prophet Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam and they are bidah (an invention not warranted by the Qur'an al-Kareem and Sunnah). They also maintain that a Muslim should seek guidance directly from the Qur'an al-Kareem and Sunnah, and no intervention of any Imam is needed for the knowledge of Shariah.
Please explain how far this view is correct.
This view is based upon certain misconceptions arising out of superfluous treatment of the complex issues involved. The full clarification of these misconceptions requires a detailed article. However, I would try to explain the basic points as briefly as possible.
It is true that “obedience”, in its true sense, belongs to Allah Almighty alone. He is the only One who deserves our obedience, and we are not supposed to obey any one other than Him. This is the logical requirement of the doctrine of “Tawhid” (belief in the Oneness of Allah). Even the obedience of the Most Beloved Prophet (Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam) has been prescribed for us only because he is the Beloved Messenger (Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam) of Allah (Subhanhu wa Ta'ala) who conveys to us the divine commandments. Otherwise he has no divine status deserving our obedience per se. We are ordered to obey and follow him only because Allah’s (Subhanahu wa Ta'ala) pleasure has been epitomised in his sayings and acts.
We are, therefore, required to follow the Qur'an al-kareem, being the direct commandment of Allah, and the Sunnah of the Beloved Prophet (Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam) being an indirect form of the divine commandments.
But the point is that the interpretation of the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah is not an easy job. It requires an intensive and extensive study of both these sacred sources of Shariah, which cannot be undertaken by every layman. If it is made obligatory on each and every muslim to consult the Qur'an al-kareem and the Sunnah in each and every problem arising before him, it will burden him with a responsibility which is almost impossible for him to discharge, because the inference of the rules of Shariah from the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah requires a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language and all the relevant material which a layman is not supposed to have. The only solution to this problem is that a group of persons should equip themselves with the required knowledge of Shariah, and the others should ask them about the injunctions of Shariah in their day-to-day affairs. This is exactly what the Qur’an al-kareem has ordained for the Muslims in the following words:
“So, a section from each group of them should go forth, so that they may acquire the knowledge and perception in the matters of religion, and so that they may warn their people when they return to them that they may be watchful.”
This verse of the Qur'an al-kareem indicates in clear terms that a group of muslims should devote itself for acquiring the knowledge of Shariah, and all others should consult them in the matters of Shariah.
Now, if a person asks an authentic ‘alim (knowledgeable person) about the Shariah ruling in a specific matter, and acts upon his advice, can a reasonable person accuse him of committing shirk on the ground that he has followed the advice of a human being instead of Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah? Certainly not. The reason is obvious. He has not abandoned the obedience of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta'ala) and His Most Beloved Messenger (Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam) ; rather, he wants nothing but to obey them. However, being ignorant of their commands, he has consulted an ‘alim in order to know what he is required by Allah to do. He has not taken that ‘alim as the subject of his obedience, but he has taken him as an interpreter of the divine commandments. Nobody can blame him and say he is committing shirk (which means ascribing partners to God).
This is exactly what the term ‘taqleed’ means. A person who has no ability to understand the Qur'an-e-Paak and Sunnah consults a muslim jurist, often termed as Imam, and acts according to his interpretation of Shariah. He never deems him worthy of obedience per se, but he seeks his guidance for knowing the requirements of Shariah, because he has no direct access to the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah or does not have adequate knowledge for inferring the rules of Shariah. This behaviour is called taqleed of that jurist or imam. How can it be said that taqleed is tantamount to shirk?
The qualified muslim jurists or imams have devoted their lives for the study of the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah and have collected the rules of Shariah; according to their respective interpretation of Shariah, in an almost codified and systematic form. This collection of the Shariah rules according to the interpretation of a particular jurist/scholar Imam is called the ‘madhhab’ of that jurist. Thus the madhhab of an imam is not something parallel to shariah, or something alien to it; in fact it is a particular interpretation of Shariah and a collection of the major Shariah rules inferred from the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah by some authentic jurists and arranged subject wise for the convenience of the followers of the Shariah. So, the one who follows a particular madhhab actually follows the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah according to the interpretation of a particular authentic jurist whom he believes to be the most trustworthy and the most knowledgeable in matters of Shariah.
As for the difference of the madhaib it has emerged through the different possible interpretations of the rules mentioned in or inferred from the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah. In order to understand this point properly, it will be relevant to note that the rules mentioned in the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah are of two different types. Some rules are mentioned in these sacred sources in such clear and unambiguous expressions that they permit only one interpretation, and no other interpretation is possible thereof, such as the obligation of Salaah, Zakaah, fasting and Hajj, the prohibition of pork, wine, etc. With regard to this set of rules, no difference of opinion has ever taken place. All the schools of jurists are unanimous on their interpretation, hence there is no room for ijtihad or taqleed in these matters, and because every layman can easily understand them from the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah, no intervention of a jurist or imam is called for. But there are some rules of Shariah derived from the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah where either of the following different situations may arise:
The expression used in the Sacred Sources may permit more than one interpretation. For example, while mentioning the period of ‘iddah (waiting period) for the divorced women, the Qur'an al-kareem has used the following expression:
“And the divorced women shall wait for three periods of ‘Qur’ “
1]. The word ‘Qur’ used in this verse has two meanings lexically. It covers both the period of menstruation and the period of purity (i.e. the tuhr). Both meanings are possible in the verse and each of them has different legal consequences. The question that requires juristic effort is which of the two meanings are intended here. While answering this question, the juristic opinions may naturally differ, and have actually differed. Imam Shafi’I Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu interprets the word ‘Qur’ as the period of tuhr (purity) while Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu interprets it as ‘the period of menstruation.’ Both of them have a number of arguments in support of their respective views, and no one interpretation can be rejected outright. It is in this way that the differences among certain madhaib have emerged.
2]. Sometimes there appears some sort of contradiction between two traditions of the Most Beloved Prophet Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam and a jurist has to reconcile them or prefer one of them over the other. In this case also, the viewpoints of the jurists may differ from each other.
For example, there are two sets of traditions found in the books of hadith attributing different behaviour to the Most Beloved Prophet Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam while going for ruku in prayer. The first set of ahadith mentions that he used to raise his hands before bowing down for ruku while the other traditions mention that he did not raise his hands except in the beginning of the Salaah.
The muslim jurists, while accepting that both methods are correct, have expressed different views about the question which of the two methods is more advisable and rewardable. This is another cause of difference between various madhaib.
3]. There are many problems or issues which have not been mentioned in the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah in specific or express terms. The solution to such problems is sought either through analogy or through some expressions found in the Sacred Sources which have an indirect bearing on the subject. Here again the jurists may have different approaches while they infer the required solution from the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah.
Such are the basic causes of difference between the madhaib. This difference is in no way a defect in Shariah; rather, it is a source of dynamism and flexibility.
A muslim jurist who has all the necessary qualifications for ijtihad is supposed, in the aforesaid situation, to exert the best of his efforts to discover the actual intention of the Qur'an al-kareem and Sunnah. If he does this to the best of his ability and with all his sincerity, his obligation towards Allah is discharged, and nobody can blame him for violating the Shariah, even though his view seems to be weaker when compared to the other ones. This is a natural and logical phenomenon certain to be found in every legal system. The enacted laws in every legal framework do not contain each and every minute detail of the possible situations. The expressions used in a statute are often open to more than one interpretation, and different courts of law, while applying such provisions to the practical situations, often disagree in the matter of their interpretation. One court explains the law in a particular way while the other court takes it in a quite different sense. Nobody ever blames any one of them for the violation of the law. Not only this, if the former court is a High Court, all the lower courts and all the people living within the jurisdiction of that High Court are bound to follow the interpretation laid down by it even though their personal opinion does not conform to the approach of the superior court. In this case, if they follow the decision of the superior Court nobody can say that they are not following the law, or that they are holding the Court as the Sovereign authority instead of the real legislator, because, in fact, they are following the decision of the Court only as a trust-worthy interpreter of law, and not as a legislator.
Exactly in the same way, the madhab of a muslim jurist is nothing but a credible interpretation of the Shariah. Another competent jurist may disagree with this interpretation, but he can never accuse him of the violation of Shariah, nor can anyone blame the followers of that particular madhab for following something other than Shariah, or for committing shirk by following the imam of that madhab instead of obeying Allah and His Most Beloved Messenger Salla Allahu Ta'ala alayhi Wa Sallam, because, they are following the madhab as a credible interpretation of Shariah, and not as a law-making authority.
The next question which may arise here is what a layman should do with regard to these different madhaib, and which one of them should be followed. Answer to this question is very simple.
There is no difference between any of the schools regarding the beliefs and doctrine of Islam (aqeeda) [for example the Oneness of Allah, Prophethood, divine revelation, Judgement Day or explicit and manifest commands such as the obligation of daily prayers, fasting, hajj, zakat and the prohibitions of pork, alcohol, adultery, interest etc. These issues do not require the consultation of a scholar to understand since they should be easily comprehendible to anybody who reads the Qur’an or Sunnah. Other issues such as the rituals of worship, the conditions of business transactions, or the method of conducting a wedding are not so clear, and without proficient knowledge of Islamic rules of Ijtihad (extracting rules and judgements based on the scripture [Qur'an] and the authentic recorded manner of the Prophet [Hadith]), the average muslim will not be certain what action to take regarding these. It is therefore the responsibility of a Mujtahid (a scholar who is qualified to practise Ijtihad) to clarify these to the layman.
Since all of these madhaib, being sincere and competent efforts to discover the true intention of Shariah, all of them are equally true, and a layman should follow the madhab (school of thought) of any one of the recognized imams whom he believes to be more knowledgeable and more pious. Although the muslim jurists who have undertaken the exercise of ijtihad are many in number, yet the madhaib (plural of madhab) of the four main jurists are more comprehensive, well-arranged and well-preserved even today, and the muslim ummah as a whole has taken them as the most reliable interpretations of Shariah. These four madhaib are called Hanafi, Shafi’I, Maliki and Hanbali schools. All the rest of the scholars and their schools are either not comprehensive in the sense that they do not contain all aspects of Shariah or their rulings have not been preserved intact in a reliable form. That is why the majority of the muslim Ummah belongs to either of these four madhaib, and if a layman adopts any one of these schools in the matter of interpretation of the Shariah, his obligation of following the Shariah is discharged. This is the true picture of the term ‘taqleed’ with reference to the recognized juristic madhaib. I hope this explanation will be able to satisfy your question and will be sufficient to establish that ‘taqleed’ has nothing to do with shirk. It is, in fact a simple and easy way to follow the Shariah.
Following one particular Imam in every Juristic Issue
“It is generally believed by the Sunni Muslims that each one of the Mudhahib of Hanafi, Shafi’I, Maliki and Hanbali, being one of the possible interpretation of Shari’ah, is right and none of them can be held as something against the Shari’ah. But on the same time we see that the followers of Hanafi school never depart from the Hanafi view and never adopt the Shafi’I or Maliki view in any juristic matter. Rather, they deem it impermissible to follow another jurists view in a particular issue. How can this behaviour be reconciled with the belief that all the four madhahib are right? If all of them are right, there should be no harm if the Hanafi Muslims follow Shafi’I or Maliki or Hanbali views in some particular matter.
It is true that all the four madhahib are right, and following any one of them is permissible in order to follow the Shari’ah. However, a layman who lacks the ability to analyse and distinguish the arguments of each madhhab cannot be allowed to pick and choose between different views only to satisfy his personal desires. The reason for this approach is twofold:
Firsty, the Qur’an al-kareem in a number of verses has emphatically ordered us to follow the Shari’ah, and has made it strictly prohibited to follow the personal desires vis-a-vis the rules of Shari’ah. The Muslim jurists, while interpreting the sources of Shari’ah never intend to satisfy their personal desires. They actually undertake an honest effort to discover the intention of Shari’ah and base their madhhab on the force of evidence, not on the search for convenience. They do not choose an interpretation from among the various ones on the basis of its suitability to their personal fancies. They choose it only because the strength of proof leads them to do so.
Now, if a layman who cannot judge between the arguments of different madhahib is allowed to choose any of the juristic views without going into the arguments they have advanced, he will be at liberty to select only those views which seem to him more fulfilling to his personal requirements, and this attitude will lead him to follow the ‘desires’ and not the ‘guidance’ --- a practice totally condemned by the Qur’an al-kareem.
For example, Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu is of the view that bleeding from any part of the body breaks the wudu’, while Imam Shafi’I Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu believes that the wudu is not broken by bleeding. On the other hand, Imam Shafi’I Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu says that if a man touches a woman, his wudu’ stands broken and he is bound to make a fresh wudu’ before offering Salaah, while Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu insists that merely touching a woman does not break the wudu.
Now, if the policy of ‘pick and choose’ is allowed without any restriction, a layman can choose the Hanafi view in the matter of touching a woman and the Shafi’I view in the matter of bleeding. Consequently, he will deem his wudu’ unbroken even when he has combined both the situations, while in that case his wudu’ stands broken according to both Hanafi and Shafi’I views. Similarly, a traveller, according to the Shafi’I view, can combine the two prayers of Zuhr and ‘Asr. But at the same time, if a traveller makes up his mind to stay in a town for four days, he is no more regarded a traveller in the Shafi’I view, hence, he cannot avail of the concession of ‘qasr’, nor of combining two prayers. On the other hand, combining two prayers in one time is not allowed according to the opinion of Hanafi school, even when one is on journey. The only concession available for him is that of ‘qasr’. But the period of travel, according to Hanafi view is fourteen days, and a person shall continue to perform qasr until he resolves to stay in a town for at least fourteen days. Consequently a traveller who has entered a city to stay there for five days cannot combine two prayers, neither according to Imam Shafi’I because since by staying for five days he cannot use the concession, nor according to Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu, because combining two prayers is not at all allowed according to him. But the policy of ‘pick and choose’ often leads some people to adopt the Shafi’I view in the matter of combining two prayers and the Hanafi view in the matter of the period of journey.
It is evident in these examples that the selection of different views in different cases is not based on the force of arguments underlying them but on the facility and convenience provided by each. Obviously this practice is tantamount to ‘following the desires’ which is totally prohibited by the Qur’an al-kareem. If such an attitude is allowed, it will render the Shari’ah a plaything in the hands of the ignorant, and no rule of the Shari’ah will remain immune from distortion.
That is why the policy of ‘pick and choose’ has been condemned by all the renowned scholars of Shari’ah. Ibn Tamiyyah, the infamous muhaddib and jurist, says in his ‘Fatawa’:
“Some people follow at one time an Imam who holds the marriage invalid, and at another time they follow a jurist who holds it valid. They do so only to serve their individual purpose and satisfy their desires. Such a practice is impermissible according to the consensus of all the imams.”
He further elaborates the point by several examples when he says:
“For example if a person wants to pre-empt (obstruct) a sale he adopts the view of those who give the right of pre-emption to a contingent neighbour, but if they are the seller of a property, they refuse to accept the right of pre-emption for the neighbour of the seller (on the basis of Shafi’I view) . . . and if the relevant person claims that he did not know before (that Imam Shafi’I does not give the right of pre-emption to the neighbour) and has come to know it only then, and he wants to follow that view as from today, he will not be allowed to do so, because such a practice opens the door for playing with the rules of Shari’ah, and paves the path for deciding the halal and haram in accordance with one’s desires.” (Fatawa Ibn Taymiyyah Syrian ed. 2:285,286)
That was the basic cause for the policy adopted by the later jurists who made it necessary for the common people to adopt a particular madhab in its totality. If one prefers the madhab of Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu, he should adopt it in all matters and with all its details, and if he prefers another madhab, he should adopt it in full in the same way and he should not ‘pick and choose’ between different views for his individual benefit. The consequence of the correctness of all the madhaib, is that one can elect to follow any one of them, but once he adopts a particular madhab, he should not follow another madhab in a particular matter in order to satisfy his personal choice based on his desire, not on the force of argument. Thus the policy of allegiance to a particular madhab was a preventive measure adopted by the jurists to prevent anarchy in the matter of Shari’ah. But obviously, this policy is meant for the people who cannot carry out ijtihad themselves, or cannot evaluate the arguments advanced by every madhab in support of their respective views. Such people have no option but to follow a particular madhab as a credible and reliable interpretation of Shari’ah.
But the people equipped with necessary qualifications of ijtihad need not follow a particular madhab. They can derive the rules of Shari’ah directly from their original sources. Similarly, the persons who are not fully qualified for the exercise of ijtihad, yet they are so well-versed in the Islamic disciplines that they can evaluate the different juristic views on pure academic grounds without being motivated by their personal desires are never forbidden from preferring one madhhab over the other in a particular matter.
There is a large number of Hanafi jurists who, despite their allegiance to Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu, have adopted the view of some other jurist in several juristic issues. Still, they are called ‘Hanafi’. This partial departure from the view of Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu was based on either of the following grounds: sometimes they, after an honest and comprehensive study of the relevant material came to the conclusion that the view of some other Imam is more forceful. Sometimes, they found that a view of Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu is based on pure analogy, but an authentic Hadith expressly contradicts that view and it is most likely that the hadith was not conveyed to Imam Abu Hanifah Radi Allahu Ta'ala anhu , otherwise he would not have adopted a view against it. In some other cases, the jurists felt that it is the requirement of the collective expedience of the Ummah to act upon the view of some other Imam, which is an equally possible interpretation of Shari’ah, and they adopted it not in pursuance of their personal desires, but to meet the collective needs of the Ummah and in view of the changed circumstances prevailing in their time.
These examples are more than enough to show that the followers of a particular madhab have never taken it as a substitute of Shari’ah or as its sole version to the exclusion of every other madhab: In fact, they have never given a juristic madhab a higher place than it actually deserved within the framework of Shari’ah.
Before parting with this question, I would like to clarify another point which is extremely important in this context: It has become a modern phenomenon, that some people having no systematic knowledge of Islamic disciplines often become deluded by their superficial information based on self-study, and that too, in most cases, through translations of the Qur’an al-kareem and Ahadith. By virtue of this kind of cursory study, they presume themselves to be the masters of the Islamic learning, and start criticizing the former Muslim jurists. This attitude is totally wrong and devoid of any justification. The inference of juristic rules from the Qur’an al-kareem and Sunnah is a very meticulous exercise which cannot be carried out on the basis of a superficial study.
While studying a particular juristic subject one has to collect all the relevant material from the Qur’an al-kareem and from the Ahadith found in different chapters and different books, and has to undertake a combined study of this scattered material. He has to examine the veracity of the relevant ahadith in the light of the well settled principles of the science of Hadith. He has to discover the historical background and exegesis of the relevant verses and traditions. In short, he has to resolve a number of complicated issues involved. All this exercise requires very intensive and extensive knowledge which is seldom found in the contemporary ‘Ulama, who are specialists themselves in the subject, let alone the common people who have no direct access to the original sources of Shari’ah.
The upshot of the above discussion is that all the four madhaib being based on solid grounds, it is permissible for a competent Hanafi ‘alim to adopt another juristic view, if he has the required knowledge and ability to go into the merits of each madhab on the basis of adequate academic research without pursuing his personal desires. But the people who do not fulfil these conditions should not dare to do so, because it can lead to a dangerous state of anarchy in the matter of Shari’ah.