In The Name Of God The Most Merciful, Most Compassionate

What is a Madhhab and why is it necessary to follow one?

by Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
Source: masud.co.uk

Filed under: Featured,Islam |

 

The word madhhab is derived from an Arabic word meaning “to go” or “to take as a way”, and refers to a mujtahid‘s choice in regard to a number of interpretive possibilities in deriving the rule of Allah from the primary texts of the Qur’an and hadith on a particular question. In a larger sense, a madhhab represents the entire school of thought of a particular mujtahid Imam, such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i, or Ahmad–together with many first-rank scholars that came after each of these in their respective schools, who checked their evidences and refined and upgraded their work.

The mujtahid Imams were thus explainers, who operationalized the Qur’an and sunna in the specific shari’a rulings in our lives that are collectively known as fiqh or “jurisprudence”. In relation to our din or “religion”, this fiqh is only part of it, for the religious knowledge each of us possesses is of three types. The first type is the general knowledge of tenets of Islamic belief in the oneness of Allah, in His angels, Books, messengers, the prophethood of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), and so on. All of us may derive this knowledge directly from the Qur’an and hadith, as is also the case with a second type of knowledge, that of general Islamic ethical principles to do good, avoid evil, cooperate with others in good works, and so forth. Every Muslim can take these general principles, which form the largest and most important part of his religion, from the Qur’an and hadith.

The third type of knowledge is that of the specific understanding of particular divine commands and prohibitions that make up the shari’a. Here, because of both the nature and the sheer number of the Qur’an and hadith texts involved, people differ in the scholarly capacity to understand and deduce rulings from them. But all of us have been commanded to live them in our lives, in obedience to Allah, and so Muslims are of two types, those who can do this by themselves, and they are themujtahid Imams; and those who must do so by means of another, that is, by following a mujtahid Imam, in accordance with Allah’s word in Surat al-Nahl,

 Ask those who recall, if you know not ” (Qur’an 16:43),

and in Surat al-Nisa,

 If they had referred it to the Messenger and to those of authority among them, then those of them whose task it is to find it out would have known the matter ” (Qur’an 4:83),

in which the phrase those of them whose task it is to find it out, expresses the words “alladhina yastanbitunahu minhum“, referring to those possessing the capacity to draw inferences directly from the evidence, which is called in Arabic istinbat.

These and other verses and hadiths oblige the believer who is not at the level of istinbat or directly deriving rulings from the Qur’an and hadith to ask and follow someone in such rulings who is at this level. It is not difficult to see why Allah has obliged us to ask experts, for if each of us were personally responsible for evaluating all the primary texts relating to each question, a lifetime of study would hardly be enough for it, and one would either have to give up earning a living or give up ones din, which is why Allah says in surat al-Tawba, in the context of jihad:

 Not all of the believers should go to fight. Of every section of them, why does not one part alone go forth, that the rest may gain knowledge of the religion and admonish their people when they return, that perhaps they may take warning ” (Qur’an 9:122).

The slogans we hear today about “following the Qur’an and sunna instead of following the madhhabs” are wide of the mark, for everyone agrees that we must follow the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). The point is that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is no longer alive to personally teach us, and everything we have from him, whether the hadith or the Qur’an, has been conveyed to us through Islamic scholars. So it is not a question of whether or not to take our din from scholars, but rather, from which scholars. And this is the reason we have madhhabs in Islam: because the excellence and superiority of the scholarship of the mujtahid Imams–together with the traditional scholars who followed in each of their schools and evaluated and upgraded their work after them–have met the test of scholarly investigation and won the confidence of thinking and practicing Muslims for all the centuries of Islamic greatness. The reason why madhhabs exist, the benefit of them, past, present, and future, is that they furnish thousands of sound, knowledge-based answers to Muslims questions on how to obey Allah. Muslims have realized that to follow a madhhab means to follow a super scholar who not only had a comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith texts relating to each issue he gave judgements on, but also lived in an age a millennium closer to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and his Companions, when taqwa or “godfearingness” was the norm–both of which conditions are in striking contrast to the scholarship available today.

While the call for a return to the Qur’an and sunna is an attractive slogan, in reality it is a great leap backward, a call to abandon centuries of detailed, case-by-case Islamic scholarship in finding and spelling out the commands of the Qur’an and sunna, a highly sophisticated, interdisciplinary effort by mujtahids, hadith specialists, Qur’anic exegetes, lexicographers, and other masters of the Islamic legal sciences. To abandon the fruits of this research, the Islamic shari’a, for the following of contemporary sheikhs who, despite the claims, are not at the level of their predecessors, is a replacement of something tried and proven for something at best tentative.

The rhetoric of following the shari’a without following a particular madhhab is like a person going down to a car dealer to buy a car, but insisting it not be any known make–neither a Volkswagen nor Rolls-Royce nor Chevrolet–but rather “a car, pure and simple”. Such a person does not really know what he wants; the cars on the lot do not come like that, but only in kinds. The salesman may be forgiven a slight smile, and can only point out that sophisticated products come from sophisticated means of production, from factories with a division of labor among those who test, produce, and assemble the many parts of the finished product. It is the nature of such collective human efforts to produce something far better than any of us alone could produce from scratch, even if given a forge and tools, and fifty years, or even a thousand. And so it is with the shari’a, which is more complex than any car because it deals with the universe of human actions and a wide interpretative range of sacred texts. This is why discarding the monumental scholarship of the madhhabs in operationalizing the Qur’an and sunna in order to adopt the understanding of a contemporary sheikh is not just a mistaken opinion. It is scrapping a Mercedes for a go-cart.

11 comments
Arham Shamsi
Arham Shamsi

these ahle hadith people need to be taught with love..... they are misguided and are misguiding people...

Sam De Francesco
Sam De Francesco

Of course there were madhhabs during the first generations, the Sahaba themselves differed over many issues, and in one instance at least, the Prophet s.a.w.s confirmed their differing interpretations of his command.

Sam Sherlock
Sam Sherlock

very nice masha'Allah .. i often have muslims and non-muslims alike question me about the source of Shari'a and how reliable it is as it is written by man; sometimes it is not enough when we reply that the Shari'a is based wholly on the Qur'an and Sunnah as they still argue it is interpretation. this article explains beautifully that Shari'a and maddhabs are a result of years of deep study, analysis and evaluation, and we as mere students of Islam are nowhere near the intellectual level they are at. i especially liked the fact that you mentioned it is "case by case" and that is updated with the progression of time.

Zahira Ameen Mariam
Zahira Ameen Mariam

Alhamdhulillaah. May Allah az-zawajal bless your site exponentially for a most important article!

Fadeel Hassen
Fadeel Hassen

Thought provoking, but not sure if I can agree with the entire content, especially the part which denies the calling to back to the Quran and sunnah as being " going backward". Im yet to make sense of this statement....

seeker
seeker

I love the sound of crickets :)

Abu Ismail
Abu Ismail

 @Fadeel Hassen That statement is clarified by what follows it, in that the call to "Qur'an and Sunnah" today refers to throwing out the ijtihad of a large body of experts who spent hundreds of years getting rid of mistakes in fiqh; to go back to the beginning and make the same mistakes that were corrected all over again. There's no need to reinvent the wheel, we have a reliable corpus of fiqh rulings in the form of the four madhhabs today, all are which are based on the Qur'an and Sunnah and are valid to follow.

SameerAhmed
SameerAhmed

@Fadeel Hassen I agree with you bro. To follow a particular madhab is an invitation of Taqleed. If the Muslims restrict themselves to following a particular scholar's view points even if a better view point exists of another scholar this gives rise to sects in the Muslim community. Where as it is prohibited to divide the Ummah into sects. Even the scholars have said that if one finds a fatwa that happens to go against a hadith of the Prophet (SAW) then throw my fatwa on the wall. This proves that the Quran and the Hadith have all the solution to any question.

Moreover, we need to keep in mind that at the time of the great scholars the means to get access to the Prophet's hadith was limited. There understanding was based on the hadith that was available with them. In this era, it is very easy to get access to all the authentic hadith and the translation of Quran in any language one can think of. Therefore, it is more easier to get hold of correct information.

Abu Ismail
Abu Ismail

Or to think of it another way, the "Qur'an and Sunnah", as we know, are the sources of Islamic law, therefore to realise it in a form that can be followed requires making choices in methodology and ijtihad, and what is produced will be a madhhab, whether we agree with the term or not. So what is so hard to understand? Which is better, following a madhhab based on a consistant and derived methodology where hundreds of scholars in different fields of expertise over hundreds of years have studied and corrected mistakes in it, as in the case of the four madhhabs, or the madhhab of a contemporary person or group of people that are using their own methodology, which is likely to be weak or even invalid.  Calling "back to Qur'an and Sunnah" implies that the current madhhabs are invalid, weak, or not based on Qur'an and Sunnah, and this is not the case - to throw it all out is a backward step, and an unnecessary and undesirable one at that.

Abu Ismail
Abu Ismail

 @SameerAhmed The point of madhhabs is that they don't go against the Qur'an and Sunnah, in fact they are the embodiment of it, the qualified answers based on the Qur'an and Sunnah to hundreds of years of questions being asked to scholars. To place the madhhabs on one side against the Qur'an and Sunnah on the other is a fallacious argument based on false premises. Madhabs *are* the Qur'an and Sunnah, and they differ where there is a valid point of disagreement by scholars. 

 

Even if one believes they can simply defer to the Qur'an and Sunnah directly (which is impossible since the Prophet s.a.w.s is no longer alive), then one will be performing taqleed, whether its to Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim, your favourite translation of the Qur'an, or even your local Imam when you ask him a question you don't know the answer to. Taqleed, when defined as following a qualified scholar, is a good thing (or as Allah commands us, "Ask those who know well when you know not"). Madhhabs that recognise the validity of each other is not forming a sect, but when one group starts questioning the validity of another, then that certainly is.

 

Furthermore,  a madhhab is not simply the opinion or ijtihad of a single scholar, or even a handful of scholars, the madhhabs are named after the scholars who's methodology it follows however in many cases the rulings of a madhhab differ from those of the scholar after which it was named. The point is, even if an early scholar's access to ahadith was limited (and I don't believe this to be the case - in fact just the opposite) then any errors in their ijtihad have long been corrected by the scholars of the madhahib in later years when the information was available.

 

Lastly, access to information does not equal knowledge and the internet proves that conclusively. 

 

And Allah Most High knows best.

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