On the Necessity of
Following a Madhab
This article is provided courtesy of The Lettered Wayfarer.
1) What is a Madhab? A Madhab is one of the 4 Orthodox schools of Islamic Law. Each of the 4 schools had an initial founder, from who the school derives it’s name. (For example: The “Hanafi” school is founded by Imam Abu Hanifa. The “Maliki” school is founded by Imam Malik, etc.). The founder of said school was a mujtahid scholar (for definition of mujtahid, see next point), who studied under the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad (sallill’ahu ‘aleyhi wa salaam), or the students of the disciples of the Prophet (s). After this initial “founder” laid out his rulings and evidences, a group of his students collected them, and updated them, and continued to do so as new issues arose, up through modern times.
2) Who is NOT required to follow a Madhab? There are only two types of people not required to follow a Madhab. The first is a Mujtahid Imam. A Mujtahid is a technical term in Islamic Law, referring to a scholar who has obtained all of the criteria necessary to give fatawa from the different schools, i.e. can perform ‘ijtihad.’ Historically, and especially in modern times, these types of scholars are very rare. The second is the ‘ammi. The ‘ammi means, literally, the laymen. This would include the people who do not intend to grasp a deep knowledge of Islam, but want to know just enough to cover the basics of what they need to know. For example, unskilled laborers, people who are employees of others (i.e. do not own their own businesses or have professions that allow them to learn the religion), and, in medieval times, slaves, sharecroppers, and the like. The ‘ammi can follow a madhab if they choose to, but it is not required of them. However, it is required of them to seek out qualified scholars to give them rulings, and part of the qualifications of a scholar is that he has studied at least one of the 4 schools, so this is somewhat of a moot point. Anyone who has not studied one of the 4 schools or does not consider following one of them to be binding, is a deviant, and thus not in the category of a “reliable” scholar. The meaning of the statement that “for the ‘ammi there is no madhab” means he does not have to stick to the mashur (fixed and/or dominant opinions) of the school. He can follow minority opinions if there is a need, etc.
3) Is the Qu’ran and Sunnah not clear enough? Why do I need to follow a madhab? Pertaining to the question, is the Qu’ran and Sunnah not clear enough, first we need to clarify that there are 3 types of knowledge in Islam. 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 all of this is fairly clear. All Muslims 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. However, the third type of Islamic 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 [and other texts] involved, the superior knowledge of nuance in the Arabic Language required, etc. people differ in the scholarly capacity to understand and deduce rulings from them. It is this later section of knowledge which makes it necessary for the layperson to follow a madhab.
Furthermore, as the great Hadith scholar Ibn Uyaynah [May Allah accept his deeds] said, “The hadith are a source of error, except for the Jurists.” -Trying to discern -for any other than the Mujtahid scholar- a ruling from Qu’ran and hadith will inevitably lead to error. A prime example of this is the Sahih Hadith in Al-Bukhari wherein it is mentioned that the person who steals something even the price of an egg should have his hand cut off. -None of the 4 Madhahib acted on this hadith [for various reasons], nor did they consider it in their rulings. If a head of state were to act on it, he would be acting in error, even though this hadith is Sahih. The point is, we need a guide outside of the Qu’ran and Hadith, with clearer understandings of the Qu’ran, Sunnah, Arabic, the understandings of the Sahabah, etc., in order to clarify certain difficult matters for us.
4) I follow Allah & His Messenger. When you follow a madhab blindly, you have left following Allah [swt] and His Messenger, and decided to follow a madhab instead! Those of us who know the need of following a madhab do not say that we follow them over the Qu’ran or authenticated hadiths, etc. Instead we say that, rather we follow these men because of their supreme knowledge of the revelations of Allah [swt], the language of the Qu’ran, the history of the Arabs, the hadiths of the Prophet, the understandings of the Salaf, etc. It is not an issue of “follow Qu’ran or follow a madhab” -nor is it an issue of “follow the Prophet, or follow a madhab” -rather it is an issue of, “I follow a madhab, because of the clarity of the madhabs’ understanding of the Qu’ran and the Prophet Muhammad’s [s] teachings, verses my own, laypersons understanding.”
5) Why not just follow a modern day scholar over a madhab? One scholar is just as good as the next! It depends on what is meant by this question as to the answer. If by “modern scholar” one means any person who has a 4 year degree in Islamic studies, or some young Imam who has not fulfilled the conditions of being a mujtahid Imam, or some “no-madhabs” scholar that graduated from Medina university, then the reasons we can’t just blindly follow such ones as these should be obvious to discerning people. For such “scholars” the answer is simply that, as per Shari’ah, the opinion of a later faqih cannot override the opinion of a faqih from among the Salaf, as the Salaf lived at a time when doing good was commonplace, truthfulness among Ahlul Sunnah Wal Jama’ah was the intrinsic way of life, and knowledge was more vast than now. Furthermore, some of the immense knowledge of the Madhahib which they received from Tabi’in, Sahabah, and their own teachers has been lost in modern times, and can only be revived in obeying their rulings.
As Murabit Al-Hajj pointed out in his Fatwa on following a Madhab: “…it is prohibited for other than a mujtahid to base his actions upon a direct text from either the Book or the Sunnah even if its transmission was sound because of the sheer likelihood of there being other considerations such as abrogation, limitations, specificity to certain situations, and other such matters that none but the mujtahid fully comprehends with precision.” -It is absurd to think that someone -even a (non-mujtahid) scholar- who lived 1400 years after the time of the Sahabah would know more about specifics regarding hadith such as abrogation, limitations, and which statements might be peculiar to a particular time, etc. than a qualified scholar who lived just a generation or two after the Sahabah. This is why the opinion of a later faqih cannot overrule the opinions of the scholars among the Salaf. They simply had knowledge in areas, -due to their proximity to the Prophet- that we do not have access to today, except through what has been preserved via the 4 madhahib.
However, that being said, it should be naturally pointed out that one can follow modern scholars OF A CERTAIN MADHAB in order to learn the rulings of ones’ own school provided they are learned and of trustworthy character.
6) Didn’t Sahabah just study under the Prophet? And didn’t the Tabi’in just study under the Sahabah? When they learned from one Sahabah, they would just move on to another. Thus, following a single madhab is a bid’ah!Actually, only 7 of the Sahabah gave fatwa [legal rulings]. These 7 were primarily relied on for legal rulings from the Prophet by the tens of thousands of other Sahabah. [These 7 were, ‘Umar, Ali, Ibn Masud, Ibn Abbass, Ibn ‘Umar, Zayd ibn Thabit, and Ayesha -may Allah be pleased with all of them]. After the Sahabah [among the Tabi’in], there were also specific luminaries [Sa’id bin Muthayib, Hasan Al Basri, Kharijah bin Zayd, and a select few others] who the other Tabi’in relied on to give fatawa. After the Tabi’in came a few of the 4 Madhahib, including Imam Malik, Abu Hanifa, and other scholars such as Layth bin Sad, Sufyan Ath-Thawri, etc. [It should be noted that the scholars of this era that are not among the 4 madhahib, such as Layth bin Sad and Sufyan Ath-Thawri, were also madhabs, but the bulk of their fatawa have been lost, were slowly replaced by one of the surviving madhahib due to the choices and needs of the people, their teachings were not followed up by other scholars within their school, or is otherwise incomplete, and thus it is impossible to follow them in modern times. Were it possible to do so, however, it would be permissable].
Later came the students of Imam Shafi’i, such as Abu Thawr, Imam Al Junayd, etc. etc. and these people expounded upon and preserved the works of the Madhahib. Each of these scholars mentioned studied under their respective teachers until reaching the level of being mujtahid Imams themselves. The point is, the concept of the Madhab existed among the Sahabah and the Tabi’in, and the Madhahib themselves come from among the eras of the Salaf. All of the scholars that are from this era, who are not among the surviving 4 Madhahib [Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali] were madhabs of their time, and in their own right, but for one reason or another have died out.
7) Have the Madhahib been related by Tawatur? Yes… there is absolute certainty concerning these 4 schools, their fatawa and teachings were related by tawatur chains through their students, which is another reason these 4 madhahib alone survived while other valid madhahib during the era of the Salaf have since been rendered obsolete.
8) What are the Qu’ranic proofs for following a Madhab? “Ask those who have knowledge, if you know not.” (Qur’an 16:43) This verse makes it clear that some Muslims will know more than others, and those who don’t know should ask the people of knowledge. If we are to direct our questions of religion to those who have knowledge, then those people of knowledge must be clearly known and easily accessible so that we can find them. Allah [swt] also says in the Qu’ran: “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) This verse makes it clear that -among the Sahabah, some of them were clearly meant to learn sacred knowledge, and to use that knowledge to teach others. -But this was something that was not gifted to all of them, as the verse clearly states that a part of the Sahabah should go forth in Jihad, but another part should remain behind to learn and teach. This verse is implying that there must be the creation of a group of specialists who are to learn and become qualified teachers of the religion, which not everyone will be able to do.
9) Are there rational proofs that we should follow a Madhab? All of human civilization is built upon the concept of having specialists in any specific field. We can’tall know EVERYTHING about a car, while simultaneously all knowing EVERYTHING about brain surgery, religion, cooking, farming, engineering, etc. etc. etc. -The point is, knowing the tafseer of every verse of the Qu’ran, the nuances of every verse of the Qu’ran in it’s linguistics, the classification of every single hadith, the exegesis of every single hadith, the opinions of the Sahabah, etc. etc. is a lifelong persuit which does not allow for the person to specialize in every [or any] other field. If we all decided to study, individually, and master Islam so we could derive rulings for ourselves, it would mean that none among the Muslims could ever be a doctor, a lawyer, and engineer, and inventor, etc. because the study of Islam to gain perfect knowledge of it is a lifelong persuit, and quite difficult especially in these modern times of fitnah.
10) How can you follow ANY scholar blindly, when we have Qu’ran and Sunnah? To say that we are following a madhab “blindly” is an insult to all those who follow a madhab, all scholars who have ever followed a madhab [such as Imam Ghazali and Imam Nawawi who were both Shafi’i, Ibn Taymiyyah who was Hanbali, etc.], and insulting the 4 Madhahib themselves by assuming that they departed from the Qu’ran and Sunnah and thus are not worthy enough of emulation, nor are they knowledgeable enough to trust, is a horrible fiction, and people should repent from such statements. Furthermore, we remind the Muslims who would ask such a question and accuse us of following “blindly” that to follow a Madhab does not mean to follow only the founder of that Madhab. Rather it means that you follow a particular school of thought which began with a certain individual who had specific standards for what constituted evidence when deriving a ruling. After him, various students of his -who all were enlightened scholars in their own right- updated and clarified his rulings, and checked them in accordance with Qu’ran and Sunnah, and mentioned his daleel. Thus, to follow a Madhab blindly is a non-existent concept. Those of us who follow a Madhab are following a wide body of opinions from the most enlightened and righteous of scholars which checked and re-checked their rulings again and again throughout history against the Qu’ran and the Sunnah, as well as the understandings of the Sahabah and other Sacred Scripture.
11) Didn’t Imam Shafi’i [May Allah accept his deeds] say “The Sahih Hadith is my madhab?“ -And didn’t Imam Abu Hanifa [May Allah accept his deeds] say, “It is forbidden for anyone to quote my rulings without knowing from where I obtained it [i.e. from Qu’ran & Sunnah]” etc.? So, see, the Madhahib themselves didn’t believe in following a Madhab! This is a fact. These two men did say this things. -And this highlights why there are differences between the 4 madhahib. They all differed, not on Qu’ran & Sunnah, but rather on what constituted evidence. Imam Shafi’i, as seen by his statement, would take any Sahih Hadith he came across and try to incorporate it. He felt that any Sahih hadith was to be accepted. But other Madhahib did not accept this view. Imam Malik [may Allah accept his deeds] for example, gave precedence to the actions of the people of Medina to a Sahih Hadith. Imam Abu Hanifa was known to use the principal of Qiyas over accepting what is known as an ahad [singularly transmitted] hadith, even if it was Sahih. -And this was common even among the Sahabah. Abdullah ibn Masud [may Allah accept his deeds] was known to use qiyas in deducing Qu’ranic principals, while Abdullah ibn Abbass [May Allah accept his deeds] was more prone to literalism. The point is, these were not statements of absolutism or anti-Madhabism on the part of Imam Abu Hanifa or Imam Shafi’i, but rather a clarification of their own personal views as to what constituted evidence when deriving a ruling from Qu’ran & Sunnah, and these views are views which find their origins in the teachings and methods of the Sahabah.
Another point to consider with regards to Imam Shafi’is (radi’Allahu ‘anhu) statement is, who was his audience? Was he just telling people in the streets, any random Muslim he came across, to not listen to him and simply accept what they find in the books of ahadith? This is untenable. It is obvious to those who do not live in half-formed thoughts that Imam Shafi’i and Imam Abu Hanifa (may God accept both of them) were talking to their students, scholars in training, who were studying to become mujtahid Imams themselves.
12) So if the Shaykh of your Masjid follows a different madhab than you, are you forbidden to take knowledge from him? It depends on the type of knowledge. When it comes to issues such as ‘Aqeedah (understanding God’s Names and Attributes), adab and ikhlaaq (Islamic morality and manners), general calling to good and forbidding of evil, and general exhortations to fear God, love Him, focus on the afterlife, etc. then taking from a local Imam is, in general acceptable on these issues. However, when it comes to fiqh of ibadah (acts of worship) and the fiqh of what is halaal and haraam in terms of money, food, clothes, etc (all of which comes under the general heading of fiqh), it would not be permissible to take this type of information from him (excepting, of course, if you decided to accept and follow his Madhab). -But this is not really an issue, because if he is truly qualified, insha’Allah he will be able to provide you answers to whatever fiqh questions you will have from your particular Madhab, even if he has to contact some of his teachers in order to do so.
13) So, is it mandatory for non-mujtahid-scholars to follow a Madhab blindly, without question, on every single issue? If you mean by “madhab” the mashur, that is, the well-known and agreed upon opinion of the majority of the scholars within that madhab (and not merely the opinions of the founder), the answer is, it depends. For people who wish to achieve great heights of spiritual purification, the first step is disciplining oneself to follow the ‘mashur’ opinions of their school. This is reserved for scholars, ascetics, and average Muslims who simply have a high himma (spiritual aspiration). However, following a madhab does not necessarily mean following the ‘mashur’ opinion at all times. It means trying to follow the mashur, but when in difficulty, following a lesser opinion within the madhab in recognition that God wants ease for us. There is also limited talfiq (crossing madhabs) allowed if there is a necessity, and on strict conditions. These concessions are made, generally speaking, for the ‘ammi.
As far as following these opinions ‘blindly’ and ‘without question’ we say the following: Questioning is vital. It would be important for us all to ask “Why does the madhab have this opinion? On what is this based?” etc. But this must be done with a spirit of humility. We must accept that so many scholars within the school agreeing on an issue (which is THE defintion of the “mashur” opinion of a madhab) were not led astray, that they came up with the best answer according to the method of accepting evidence by the founder of the Madhab.
Recall that a Madhab, as we have stated, represents a school of thought comprising various scholars over a certain span of time. Thus you are not following one person blindly. You are following a wide group of scholars spanning several centuries who arrived at a consensus on several issues, using a standard of evidence set by an initial founder [who himself was brilliant, righteous, and dedicated to Allah and His Messenger]. Thus it is not, “following blindly” -but rather, “following based on evidence, consensus of scholars, and using a certain standard of evidence!” -The difference is that the former form of “following” is not fard [obligatory], whereas the latter form of “following” is, and no scholar, of ancient times or modern, would disagree.
14) Ok, but why should I follow only ONE Madhab? Why not look at all 4 and see which of their fatwas I wish to take on any given issue? We must answer this question with a question: What is the goal of doing so? The most common answer is, typically, “I just want to follow the opinion that has the stronger proof!” Since the Madhahib disagreed on what constitutes evidence, it is not enough to make such a declaration (assuming one is even qualified to judge the different rulings of the Madhabs for authenticity themselves, which is rarely the case of people who make such statements). -They all had different reasons and different ideas about the very nature of proof itself in terms of Shari’ah, so how can we decide which one was better simply by comparing fatwas and rulings? This is nonsense, of course.
Furthermore, talfiq (madhab mixing) is allowed, but only on strict conditions, and only for the ‘ammi, as we have mentioned. Those conditions are, basically, that there is a legitimate need to do so, and that what is taken is taken in totality. For example, one cannot follow the rules of taharah (purification for prayer) from one school, and then make wu’du in accordance with another school, and then pray in accordance with another school. The reason for this can be explained with an example. Let us say one has followed Maliki tahara, in which the dog saliva is not najasa (impure), and thus begins his salah without making wu’du even though a dog as licked him… however, he prays as a Shafi’i… Well, in the Shafi’i school, his prayer is invalid because he is impure, and in the Maliki school his prayer is deficient because he has recited the basmallah before the surahs. So, is his salah accepted? According to which of the 4 schools? What is the point of adding such confusion to our lives?
Thus, if one needs to do talfiq, the accepted way is to take everything concerning a general topic from one school. If one is Shafi’i, but needs to follow the Maliki rules for tahara, for example, then they must be Maliki in taharah, wu’du, and salah, to be sure that their prayer isn’t invalid. However, in issues not related to Salah (i.e., in “everything else”) they still follow the Shafi’i school.
And Allahu ‘Alim.
To read more about following a Madhab: Book: The Legal Status of Following a Madhab.