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A Brief Introduction to the 4 Schools of Sunni Islam – for Converts

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Continuing to clarify for Converts the truth of Islam’s jurisprudential history so they can hopefully see through the fog of the current situation Muslims are in.

This is a continuation of my previous post – What are Sects, What are NOT Sects, in Islam

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In brief, Islam would not exist today without the four Schools of Jurisprudence.  Collectively, they are the 99% of the Muslims, Scholars, Imams – the Vicegerents whom Allah has chosen to protect, clarify, defend, and convey His Religion to humanity for the last 1300 years.

It has to be understood that Allah has put all human beings in a test to determine Truth and abide by it.  This is why Allah has sent Prophets to not only convey the Truth from Allah, but also to defend it by verbal argument and even militancy.  The human being is in a constant battle with internal and external sources of deception and misguidance, to such extent that the vast majority of human beings will eventually land in hellfire.  Our trial in this life is not a trivial matter of opinions and notions.

A convert needs to understand that not only are we Muslims assailed by the temptations of Shaytaan and the non-believers from outside our ranks, but also from misleading ideas within.  The first group of Muslims who caused real strife within the Community of Believers were the Kharijites who were foretold by Rasulullah s.a.w., and who arrived a mere 40 years after the Prophet’s passing from this worldly life.  So, there has always been a need to keep Believers in the Successful Group, to defend them from the enemies inside themselves, and from misguided notions that often pass between them.

If we were with Rasulullah s.a.w., we could listen to his words, observe his actions, do what he did exactly, and never be confused.   However, Rasulullah was a human being, Allah’s Messenger, who had a pre-determined lifespan.  Since his passing, what the Believers have relied upon is Transmission of Knowledge and Understanding.  Knowledge comes in various forms, including the Qur’an and Hadeeth, while Understanding (Fiqh) can only be transmitted from the truly intelligent and wise, to the vast majority of us who are not so gifted.

Imam Ahmad Mentions Imam al-Shafi Being Sufficient as a Proof: Imam al-Baihaqi in ‘Manaqib al-Shafi’ (2:154) reports from Imam Ahmad that:

“Hammad bin Ahmad al-Basri said: I was with Ahmad bin Hanbal and we were discussing the issue, when a man said to Ahmad: O Abu Abdullah, there is no authentic hadith regarding it! He –Ahmad said: Even if there is no authentic hadith with regards to it, there is the opinion of al-Shafi, and his proof is the most established ruling with regards to it.”

`Abdullah ibn Wahb (died AH 197) used to show hadiths to Imam Malik ibn Anas (died AH 179) and Imam Al-Layth ibn Sa`d (died AH 175) to know what was applicable and what was not. He said, “Were it not for Malik and Al-Layth, I would have been ruined. I used to think that everything that is ‘attributed’ to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is [obligatorily] applicable.

Before the 6 most-relied-upon volumes of Hadeeth were collected (Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawood, an-Nasai, and ibn Majah), the 4 schools of Fiqh (Jurisprudence) were formed.  The 4 Imams already had their own collections of Hadeeth, and lived in a time in which they could see the Prophet’s Sunnah in the people.  The 4 Imams completed the task of proving their rulings based on ALL sources of knowledge they had available – the Qur’an, Hadeeth, rulings of the Khalifa’s and Sahabah, etc.  These 4 men only became known as Imams by proving their rulings against hundreds or even thousands of scholars at their time.  Had they failed to ever prove their superiority in Knowledge and Intelligence, they would never have been declared Imams.

After the 4 Imams of Fiqh, there was effort made by other great scholars to collect the Hadith and compile them into books.  Imam Bukhari, for example, traveled the lands gathering Hadeeth from hundreds of sources, accumulating over 300,000 Hadeeth, before compiling his collection Sahih al-Bukhari, which is some 3-4,000 Hadeeth.  The full name of this collection is The Abridged Collection of Authentic Hadith with Connected Chains regarding Matters Pertaining to the Prophet, His practices and His Times.   The 6 collections (Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu-Dawood, an-Nasa’i, and ibn Majah) total around 35,000 Hadeeth only.

It is known that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (the 4th Imam) had collected some 700,000 Hadeeth.   This dwarfs the 6 compilations by a factor of 20 to 1.  Neither he nor Imam Shafi’i would accept or recommend anyone to become Imam of Jurisprudence without a minimum of 400,000 Hadeeth, in addition to the other requirements to be such an Imam.  Today, there is no one on earth who has come forth to prove their memorization of the 35,000 Hadeeth in the 6 books.

However, between our time and the time of the Imams, there have been hundreds of scholars known as Hafidh-ul-Hadeeth (Guardian of Hadeeth).  The requirement for them is to have memorized 100,000 Hadeeth or more.  And with that tremendous knowledge, THEY ALL ADHERED TO THEIR SCHOOL OF JURISPRUDENCE.

Among the Imams of Hadeeth themselves, it’s known that Imam an-Nasa’i adhered to the Shafi’ school.   Others, it would appear, were students of the 4 schools and their Scholars.  It’s possible that Bukhari was also an Imam of Jurisprudence, though there is no School remaining.  What is clear is that all of the hundreds of other scholars of Hadeeth stayed within one of the 4 Schools of Jurisprudence.

Acting on Hadith only After Consulting with the People of Knowledge: Imam Ahmad said as reported in ‘Ilaam al-Muwaqqin’ (1:44) of Ibn al-Qayyim:

“If a man has written works containing words of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and differences of the companions and followers (tabieen), then it is not permissible to act by that which he wishes and chooses, and act upon (Hadith) until he asks a person of knowledge regarding what can be taken, so he will be acting in a correct manner.”

Imam Sufyan al-Thawri r.a.a. said as reported in ‘ Sharh Illal al-Tirmidhi of Ibn Rajab (1:29):

“Hadith have come which are not acted upon”

Imâm al-Shâfi`î said: “You [the scholars of hadîth] are the pharmacists but we [the jurists] are the physicians.” Mullâ `Alî al-Qârî commented: “The early scholars said: The hadîth scholar without knowledge of fiqh is like a seller of drugs who is no physician: he has them but he does not know what to do with them; and the fiqh scholar without knowledge of hadîth is like a physician without drugs: he knows what constitutes a remedy, but does not have it available.”

`Abdullah ibn Wahb (died AH 197) used to show hadiths to Imam Malik ibn Anas (died AH 179) and Imam Al-Layth ibn Sa`d (died AH 175) to know what was applicable and what was not. He said, “Were it not for Malik and Al-Layth, I would have been ruined. I used to think that everything that is ‘attributed’ to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is [obligatorily] applicable.

Fiqh is the set of guidelines, derived from Qur’an and Sunnah, for how an Imam weighed and prioritized various pieces of evidence.  There is a considerable amount of Fiqh involved in classifying and authenticating the Hadeeth themselves.  However, this pales in comparison to the Fiqh involved in deriving Islamic rulings from all of the sources.  Therefore, the scholar of Hadeeth is dependent on the Faqeeh ( Legal Expert ) to determine what to take or leave from the Hadeeth.

So, today, when we hear about Tafseer of Qur’an (Qur’an commentary), it is a field of great value that requires extreme prudence.  Were one to write something about the Book of Allah which is not true, there would be a terrible consequence on the Day of Judgment, especially if others had read that and been misguided by it.  So, the Mufasir (commentator) has to be a master of Arabic, in its words, grammar, and poetic usages, must be qualified in Fiqh and Hadeeth, and must have mastery of the Principles of Islamic Beliefs.  With all of this required qualification, 99% of the Tafseers (commentaries) were written by scholars who followed one of the 4 Schools of Jurisprudence.

Are we beginning to get the understanding that the Muslims and Scholars of the past considered it mandatory to keep their Religion straight by following the 4 Imams ?   Are we seeing the pattern yet ?

So, we take a look at modern times.   Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin Al-‘As:

“that the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) said: “Indeed Allah does not take away knowledge by removing it from the hearts of the people, but He takes away knowledge by taking the scholars(by death), until there remains no scholar and the people begin to ask the ignorant leaders, so they give their verdict without knowledge. They will go astray and lead the people astray.”
One cannot understand how deep in ignorance today’s Muslims are except through studying the past.  In looking at the excellence of the past, we see that Muslims today are just barely Muslims, holding on by a tiny thread.  The discrepancy isn’t just in the fact that today’s scholars fall short of 1% of the knowledge possessed by those of the past, nor even in the lack of God-fearingness among today’s scholars.  Muslims all over have devolved to a state of ignorance, corruption, and laziness.  But the most dangerous and troubling of all is the condition of the Arabs.
Today’s Arabs have been almost entirely disconnected from the knowledge and practice of Sunni Islam.  You may ask 1,000 Arabs before finding one who can even name the 4 Imams, much less actually learn from the traditional schools.  Because they have also left off the physical and spiritual disciplining that Islam mandates, Arabs are perfectly satisfied with themselves, though they have all but left Islam entirely.  Yet they can rattle-off verses of the Qur’an and Hadeeth.  To the Convert, who has no background experience and very little knowledge, the Arab sounds like an expert.   You see Converts sitting entranced in lectures, buying translated books, watching TV and YouTube videos, yet having no idea if what they are absorbing is authentic Islam or not.  So, over the last 30 years, there have been countless Converts enthralled by the verbiage, finding some benefits in the general message, but left in a state of ignorance after many years of such occupations.   The blind following the blind, which is exactly what the above mentioned Hadith states.
So, some concluding advice for Converts
I’ll simply refer back to the opening paragraph of this post:
In brief, Islam would not exist today without the four Schools of Jurisprudence.  Collectively, they are the 99% of the Muslims, Scholars, Imams – the Vicegerents whom Allah has chosen to protect, clarify, defend, and convey His Religion to humanity for the last 1300 years.
If it’s good enough for the greatest scholars in human history, it’s good enough for me.  Those scholars gained comprehensive understanding of Islam by learning from their teachers, in a chain of narration that goes back to The Messenger, the Islamic disciplinary path known as Madhhab.
For Converts either delaying selecting a Madhhab or picking and choosing between the 4, I highly recommend to learn the Obligatory Elements of Tahara (purification), Wudhu, Ghusl, Salah, Fasting, and what is Haram in our daily lives according to one of the 4 Schools.   Scholars have warned about performing these matters in a way that would not be acceptable to any of the Schools.
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