(Draft Article) Following a Madhab (School of Islamic Jurisprudence)

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By a member of the MuslimAnswers.net Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

I was requested to write something about why I took up a school of jurisprudence after many years of being a Ghayr Muqallid. I have to admit that I do not have a very inspiring personal narrative, but I wish to counterbalance this deficiency by relating the specific points that in one way or the other lead to this change. I do admit that many of these points are discussed in the writings of others in a much better way, but I wanted to pinpoint what I thought were the important arguments for me. I have to emphasize in here that the “Ghayr Muqallid” movement is not only about jurisprudence, but it is also about the belief and epistemological system of Islam, so I will note this below as well. On a few points I will also bring out how some of the Ghayr Muqqallid positions are in fact similar to Twelver Shia positions, both due to the fact that I was brought up for some time with Twelver Shia concepts in my home, and also because in spite of the apparent hatred of the Ghayr Muqqalideen towards the Twelvers, they could not help but to follow their footsteps in some matters.

1. The first point I want to discuss is the saying of the Ghayr Muqallideen that the adoption of a school of jurisprudence brings forth divisions in the Islamic Ummah, and that only when we go back to the “Qur’an and Sunnah”, then the unity of the Ummah will be achieved. I heard this a number of times in my previous state, and I have to say now that this is a very naïve way of looking at things, because I found out that the differences in the Madhaahib are limited to certain restricted points in interpretation and methodology [and this is why their number is also limited].

On the contrary, in the case of the Ghayr Muqallid, he is not bound by any particular methodology or set of rules; this situation of his will lead to many more schisms than can ever be imagined in the case of the Madhahibs, because every person thinks that he can deduce the rulings and even the fundamentals of belief independently. (It can be said that the methodology for the Ghayr Muqqallideen is nominally to “follow the Qur’an and Sunna”, but this is a very vague phrase in this context which does not address the methodological problems one faces when one delves into the primary Islamic texts).

This is the reason why we see today a huge proliferation of outright freethinkers within the Islamic milieu, who advocate anything from evolutionary biology to homosexuality in an unrestricted manner, all the while claiming that such positions may be reconciled with the primary Islamic texts.

In fact one of the most outspoken deviant groups of our times, the Hadith Rejecters, is the ideological inheritor of the Ghayr Muqallideen faction, even though this latter group claims strong adherence to Sahih Ahadith. The reason for this ideological inheritance is of course, that the Ghayr Muqqallid group stressed the “Qur’an and Sahih Ahadith” without giving a very strong methodological basis as to why one text of the Qur’an or Sahih Hadith should be preferred over the other, except that the strict literal meaning of all texts should be adhered to in both belief and practice.

But when certain people saw that there were contradictions in the apparent texts of the Qur’an with that of the Sahih Ahadith, or between Sahih Ahadith themselves, they thought that such contradictions could be eliminated only by discarding the veracity of all Ahadith en masse.  Had the Ghayr Muqallid faction instead seen that there is more to Islamic belief and practice than the superficial  understanding one may obtain from the apparent meaning of the literal text of the Qu’ran and the Sahih Ahadith, it is very likely that such present freethinking would not have proliferated within the Muslim community.

2. Another issue is with respect to the Ghayr Muqqallid assertion that Taqlid is conducive to blindly following the wrong conclusions even when the Sahih evidence is clearly in front of us. They say this is in fact a form of idolatry, meaning that in their opinion the Muqqallideen have taken the words of Imam Malik (RA) or Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) as the fundamental basis of religion rather than what the Qur’an and the Sahih Ahadith have to say.

I have to mention that this enters into a more serious matter, namely that of accusing Muslims of being idol-worshippers, which is why I never took this saying to heart. But leaving this issue aside, it shows that the opponent does not understand the difference between Hadith and Fiqh and how they are transmitted, as well as the fact that there are many correct (and even mass transmitted) texts that are not meant to be acted upon. It also shows that such people do not appreciate the vastness of the Arabic language, in that, for example, a simple conjunction like a (و) may indicate numerous sentential constructs, and that when applied to the Verses of the Qur’an or to the Sahih Ahadith, this will lead to certain differences in the classification of legal rulings. Thus, this is not a reprehensible following of the Imams of Fiqh, but rather a natural outgrowth of the inherent depth of the Islamic texts.

Related to the above is the fact that the Ghayr Muqqallideen cannot provide the Muqqallideen an irrefutable reason why their conclusions are absolutely right and ours are absolutely wrong. The very simple proof of this is that their own scholars disagree with one another with respect to many issues. Even in my own local Masjid, there are two Ghayr Muqqallid ’Aalims, and while one of them said that reciting the Fatiha during prayer is more virtuous, the other held it to be obligatory; of course, such a classification would affect many things, such as what constitutes a valid prayer according to each ‘Aalim. This shows that the matter is not as simple as claiming to follow only the Qur’an and Sahih Ahadith and then expecting for everyone to agree on the detailed classifications of every single issue.

3. I need to mention that part of the issue above is related to an idealized conception of reality, which I have to say was something which did previously affect me, and I am sure that is also affects many other lay Muslims. What happens is that there is this utopian concept in the minds of many that there has to be an independently verifiable and absolutely correct answer for every possible question of Islamic belief and jurisprudence; in this pattern of thinking, if only we were to devote ourselves more assiduously to the study of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (or the Sahih Ahadith), then eventually all of our differences would be resolved.

Now, it is true that there are a good number of rulings that we know about with certainty. However, as I found out later on, this is mostly connected with the generalities of matters, for when issues bifurcate into finer details, it is only from the very nature of information and knowledge that different modes of analysis and comprehension will lead to different conclusions. If we know that the Companions and the Tabi’in differed about certain issues, why would the people of today think that they can surmount these problems, especially when all of the angles of any given issue have already been exhausted and the different sides basically agreed to disagree?

Also related to the above is the fact that we have the narration from the Prophet (Salla Alalhu Alayhi Wa Sallam) where he said that the Mujtahid who errs gets one reward, while the one who comes to the correct conclusion gets two rewards. This is extremely pertinent to this discussion as I found out later on, since it shows both the importance of leaving the matter of deducing rulings to those qualified to do so, while also not worrying one’s self about the fact that the final conclusions may be divergent on a number of matters.

4. I have to mention in here that the Ghayr Muqqallid’s insistence that the final answer will be found by the common Muslim is indirectly related to the Twelver Shias’ insistence that the absolute truth of everything is already known to the “Infallible Imam”, and that it is the fault of the Ahl us Sunnah to have left this treasure trove of truth by the wayside and busied ourselves in irreducible differences of opinion.

Of course, this bypasses the fact that the current “Infallible Imam” of the Twelvers is in occultation and does not communicate directly with their scholars (insofar as he would directly give them infallible guidance as to the correct classification of narrations and the derivation of rulings), and that the practical job of Hadith classification and deduction of rulings is done by their fallible Twelver scholars. But this was brought up to show that even before the emergence of the Ghayr Muqqallideen as a global force within the Sunni community, this utopian idealization of total infallibility in deducing every matter of Islam had already claimed the thinking of many people claiming to follow the Islamic religion. Perhaps it is due to the attacks of the Shias upon the Ahl us Sunnah that many from among our people resort not to studying what Islamic epistemology actually is, but rather gravitate towards those groups which claim that if we only stick to the infallible texts, our rulings will also become infallible over time.

[As an aside, note that the brainchild of these two groups, namely the Hadith Deniers, also make this claim with respect to the Qur’an: that if we dismiss every Hadith and follow only the Qur’anic text, we will get rid of every divergence in the Islamic religion and everyone will agree with each other. However, this is also untrue as we see that only in a few decades of existence, the “Hadith Deniers” cannot even agree amongst themselves whether there are 3 obligatory prayers or 5, whether alcohol is totally forbidden or only disliked, or whether a new Prophet can come in our own times. It is useless to get involved into the details of all these arguments of theirs, but I simply wanted to show that the desire for uniformity through infallible derivation is simply impossible and could eventually lead to disbelief.]

5. Moving to the matters of belief, what is lamentable is that even in this arena, the Ghayr Muqqallideen group sticks to its over-reliance on the apparent meanings of the literal texts. This is why we find them belittling the traditional classification of knowledge into rationally deduced and textually derived, claiming that everything is to be based only on textual evidences, and that if we move into rationalistic matters this is an imitation of the Greek and atheist philosophers. I too was for some time influenced by this mentality, but by the grace of Allah this line of thinking dissipated from my mind.

Thus, after some consideration, I found that the Ghayr Muqqallid position in this respect is clearly an exaggeration, for the simple reason that even the acceptance of Islam itself is based on some analytical thinking and rationalization. We see then that when the Qur’an was first recited to the people of Makkah, they had to have the senses to hear this recitation and the analytical tools to understand that this recitation was something unlike anything they had known up to that time, and that consequently this was a miracle from Allah to Muhammad ; in this manner the proof would be established upon them, and it was up to them whether to believe or disbelieve in the Divine Message. Without this rational progression of thoughts, even if done at a subconscious level, it would have been impossible for the revelation to have had an effect on anyone, and miracles as a whole would have had no meaning, since the distinction between natural and supernatural would have been blurred in the minds of the masses.

We see that even in order to follow the general rulings of Islam, the believer needs to be able to read and understand the texts that are in front of one. If we are talking about the qualified scholar and the deducing of rulings, then we are talking about someone whose tools of analytical reasoning are far beyond that of the common Muslim. Both of these tasks are clearly not possible unless one has the mental tools of comprehension in order to complete the task at hand.

6.  This belittling of rationality also extends into demeaning the traditional Sunni scholars’ classification of existents into the intrinsically impossible, the possible, and the absolutely necessary. For someone like myself who was looking for various reasons for showing the truth of Islam, it was simply not possible to stomach the Ghayr Muqqallid position, since this view (in addition to the point mentioned above) would lead to Islam being just another religion from among the religions, and this is not something that can be accepted at all.

Perhaps my personal deduction went too far in its condemnation of the Ghayr Muqqallid position, but I had to keep in mind that the basis of Islam had to be founded on universally held rational precepts, and not on arbitrary bias. Not only that, but there are indeed many Verses in the Qur’an which elaborated on logical disjunctions, mutual exclusivity, and other topics which serve as the basis of longer analytical discussions about Allah the Exalted. The same was true regarding a number of Sahih Ahadith, in that they served as the stepping stones for longer discussions by later scholars concerning the rational truths contained within them.

And this is one matter that needs special attention in our day and age, since we have Muslim children and teenagers reading books and textbooks which contain material explicitly against Islamic belief. If such Muslims do not have any previous notion as to what the proper classification of knowledge is and how analytical thinking is carried out with respect to the various topics they read, then they may very well grow up into Muslims who doubt many of the important things in Islam, and it may even lead them to outright apostasy, may Allah save us all from this state.

7. Another related issue which was also important for me was the insistence of the Ghayr Muqqallideen towards the “simple apparent meaning” of the texts when taken literally, even when applied to Allah the Exalted and His Attributes. The problem in here is that the traditional Ash’ari viewpoints are condemned as being Jahmi in nature[1], and I personally needed to get out of this mental constraint in order to see the reality of Ash’ari theology and the incorrectness of the Ghayr Muqqallid positions.

 In this case, I was greatly helped by those students of knowledge and brothers who understood these issues very well. They helped to see that even though the Ghayr Muqqallideen claimed they were doing Tafwidh (i.e. delegating the meanings of the ambiguous Verses to Allah alone), what they were in fact doing was very close to Tashbih (anthropomorphism), since they were making an outright interpretation of what the ambiguous Verses meant, and such interpretations when studied in depth could not be possibly correct. For example, when we see the Qur’anic phrase mentioning that Allah ‘Istawa’ on the ‘Arsh, we can simply pass it on as we heard it without getting into the details of what it means. But when we find some of the Ghayr Muqqalllideen saying that ‘Istawa’ means ‘Istaqarra’ (i.e. to be at rest), they are violating their own rule regarding making an interpretation of these Verses (since they are adding a word not found in the Qur’an and claiming that it is the true definition of this original Qur’anic word), along with saying that Allah the Exalted is susceptible to the dualities of motion and rest, things which are only applicable to the creation. [Incidentally, certain religions like Taoism or Hinduism consider that the “Absolute” is a non-active entity who is eternally at rest as a witness. I cannot say up to what degree the Ghayr Muqqallideen took from Hindu or Taoist cosmology since there is no direct known link, but the similarities, at least with respect to motion and rest, are alarming].

8. One interesting issue is that the Ghayr Muqqallideen claim to be researching matters independently when they say that one can discard (for example) the opinion of Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) if one finds stronger evidence to the contrary. They also claim that the Imams of Fiqh themselves said to follow this methodology with respect to their rulings.

However, once I started to understand how rulings were derived among the Madhaahib, it became difficult for me to hold on to such a view. That is because it presupposes that the students of these Imams did not honor the rules of their teacher with respect to the methodology for deriving rulings, but rather rebelled against such teachings. If I were to suppose that this in indeed what happened, how could I come to know what the original positions of the Imams were (in order to hypothetically compare it with the ‘Qur’an and Sahih Ahadith’), especially since there would also be a huge doubt as to whether the original position of the Imam was faithfully transmitted by his students? [It is very interesting that the Ghayr Muqqallid would consider it possible that the students of the Imams did not honor their true teachings, while they would not doubt the honesty of Hadith narrators, even though many of the Sahih Ahadith are singularly narrated, and a malicious person could raise this same doubt with respect to the transmission of Ahadith.

There is also the problematic issue that the Twelver Shias make this same general accusation concerning the majority of the Companions of the Prophet . Likewise, the Twelvers claim that some of the biggest scholars of the Ahl us Sunnah studied under their “Infallible Imams” but committed the sin of not following such “Infallible Imams” unquestioningly. It is difficult to see how the Ghayr Muqqallideen differ from the Twelvers in this respect, since both ascribe serious rebellion of students towards their teachers, leading to the supposed loss of crucial religious knowledge].

This is only one aspect of this issue. As I found out, the other aspect was that statements of the founders of the schools of Fiqh saying that their sayings were to be abandoned if a greater evidence was found were meant only for those who had attained expert command of the methodology of the Madhab in question, and could apply the methodology of the Madhab with respect to any new information that may have come in the future.

Additionally, the claim to be doing independent research is untrue to begin with, for in order to be a truly “independent researcher” who can deduce rulings by himself, one should not rely on the books of Ahadith as written (for example) by Imams al-Bukhari and Muslim, but should rather personally achieve a high status in being able to understand and explain why Imams al-Bukhari and Muslim placed in their collections the narrations they did place therein from the viewpoint of narrational authenticity. As we know, there are only few Muslims in the world today who can fully repel a “clever argument” against any given Sahih Hadith if the argument is from the narrational angle, particularly because so few of us have done anything other than a superficial study of Hadith analysis, if we have done any study in this field at all. The same goes for independently interpreting Qur’anic Verses, which requires an enormous amount of time, dedication, and mental prowess in order to achieve moderate aptitude in this field.

9. Related to the point above, is that I was led to believe that when one mentions the Madhab of Imam Abu Hanifa (RA), he means the sayings of Abu Hanifa (RA). I later found out that this is not accurate, since what Abu Hanifa (RA) left that was more important than his own opinions was the methodology inherent within these opinions. Thus, his students and the later scholars following his path deduced the method followed for deriving these rulings. More importantly, they applied this method to any new information that came their way. This is why a person would find out that the direct students of Imam Abu Hanifa (RA) differed with his opinions in numerous cases, showing that there was absolutely no “blind following” when the evidence showed otherwise, and that the Madhaahib were more than the sum total of the founders’ sayings.

10. If we move back to the discussion concerning the taking of “Sahih Ahadith”, I need to mention that there exists this impression in the minds of many Ghayr Muqallideen that “Sahih Hadith” means absolutely infallible Hadith. I later found out that this conception is not entirely accurate, because a Hadith is after all an item of information. Even though the speaker is the Prophet and therefore whatever he says is indeed infallible, it is not necessary that the relaying of this information will always be without errors.

The scholars of Hadith have done an enormous job in classifying the various narrators and types of Ahadith, but at the end of the day, their classification was due to their observation of human characteristics, and their witnessing of the behavior of Hadith transmitters and the probable effect this would have on the reliability of any reported narration. We as Muslims do have the unquestionable mass transmitted primary texts and opinions which could be termed as “infallible”, but apart from that, the authenticity of narrations will be subject to fallible standards of analysis and derivation.

As an easily verifiable example of this, when one opens the collections of Ahadith (even the Sahih collections), one sees that many of the narrations are reported with slight variations in wording; this is because there was some uncertainty about the exact words transmitted among some of the narrators. This is obviously not a negative point on the narrators or on the Hadith compilers and scholars, but it is important to note that “Sahih Hadith” does not necessarily translate to “infallible Hadith”, and that this reality will likewise be reflected in the derivation of belief points and rulings.

Thus, I concluded that if the Ghayr Muqqallid is unable to see that the denotation “Sahih Hadith” is due to fallible methods of analysis (and that even the “infallible” primary texts of Islam are such due to the fact that numerous independent chains of transmission concerning any given event [or item of information] cannot be false due to the impossibility of collusion among all narrators to tell a lie), then this will present a very deep epistemological problem to the objective observer who knows nothing about Islam other than what the Ghayr Muqqalllideen group has to say.

11. After a lot consideration over the years, I have come to see that the urge for not adopting a Madhab is in fact the theological “child” of the European “Renaissance” and the “Enlightenment” (it is true that there are abstract links between the Ghayr Muqqallideen and Twelver Shias, but the links between the Ghayr Muqqallideen and Western culture are deeper due to the lingering effects of colonialism).

This is so because these two movements stressed the supposed validity of individualism, the high position of the thinking man, and his potential for individual progress in all his fields of endeavor. This is why when we turn our attention to the ideals of the American and French revolutions, we see that the motto of individual “rights” and individual “freedoms” were very much ingrained in such movements. Over time, the interpretation of what these “rights” and “freedoms” are has only gotten wider, and the range of what one may or may not hold sacred has likewise widened, to the point that even belief in ‘Satanism’ has become constitutionally protected in many Western nations.

But Islam by default cannot be like this. When we say we are Muslims, we have admitted that we “submit” ourselves to the decrees of Allah the Exalted. We accept that we do not have anything inherent within our own makeup which entitles us to “rights” or “freedoms”, but that rather we are only allowed to do whatever Allah the Exalted has permitted us to do.

So now the question becomes: What can this have to do with adopting a school of jurisprudence? The answer is that when one adopts a school, he is acknowledging his inability to independently deduce the rulings from the primary texts of Islam. This loss of “freedom” and loss of “independence” is alien to the modern world and the upbringing of people within this world, and this is why adoption of a Madhab is rejected today by many Muslims at the mental level, even if such a rejection is purely in their subconscious.

What such Muslims are thinking is that, unlike their forefathers, they are literate and educated, and do not need anyone else to tell them what is right or wrong- thus, adopting their own interpretations is seen by them as a vehicle to show themselves and others that they are capable of critical thinking and that they can make independent decisions with respect to important matters affecting their lives. Perhaps at some other level, they are thinking that this is the way to get out of the tentacles of Western domination. But as we have seen above, this is in fact the exact following of the Western world, with all of their slogans about “freedom” and “independence” being applied to Islamic belief and jurisprudential matters.

12. Closely related to the “Enlightenment” was the phenomenon of the Protestant Reformation, which could be said to embody the principles of the “Enlightenment” within a European Christian context. We all need to know that one of the biggest slogans of the Protestants was their claim to follow ‘sola scriptura’ – only the bible, as they held that the bible was perspicuous (i.e. sufficiently clear) and that any person using his common sense could gain salvation directly through personally interpreting and following the translation of the bible into his native tongue. According to the Protestants, there was no need to transfer the job of interpretation to the priests and bishops, since this would signify that the meanings and text of the bible remained hidden to most of the populace (since the bishops and priests would read the bible in Latin and interpret it as they saw fit).

I do not want to go into the deeper reasons why the Catholics are extremely wrong on many issues and why this led to a revolt even within Christendom itself, but I want the reader to notice how similar the Protestant position is to that of the Ghayr Muqallid position with respect to the “primacy of the individual believer” to analyze the texts and deduce rulings directly from them. Additionally, just as Protestantism itself broke off into literally thousands of “churches” and denominations, we see that the Ghayr Muqqallid movement also has witnessed many internal schisms due to their positioning of the common individual as the centerpiece of Islamic analysis and interpretation.

All the above points are basically then a very brief analysis of where I personally felt that the Ghayr Muqqallid movement has gone wrong, and how the very basis of Islam rests with the traditional scholars of Sunni belief and jurisprudence. I pray that Allah uses this exposition to open the hearts of those who are in doubt about this matter, as well as to strengthen the hearts of those who are already on the truth.

[1] That is, the accusation from the Ghayr Muqqallideen is that the Ash’aris deny the explicit Islamic texts just like the Jahmiyya denied the possibility that what the Qur’anic texts stated could be taken as true if the wording remained as mentioned in the Qur’an.