The Islamic Schools of Jurisprudence (madhabs) were formed over a thousand years ago at a time when shari’ah (Islamic law) was practised and Islamic legal theory flourished. It was during this period that jurisprudence took shape as an Islamic science, flourishing as discussion and debate on controversial juristic issues became widespread.
With scholars spread throughout the Islamic lands, individual jurists would attempt to deal with the array of new customs and problems found in their own respective regions. As is inevitable, certain scholars would come to prominence, their knowledge illuminating others as well as setting a yardstick for jurists to come. Consequently, the reputation of certain jurists (fuqaha) would attract students, not only from that specific region but from across the Islamic world. Furthermore, scholars in agreement with the principles of the jurist would also join him so as to create a legal paradigm, this being the starting point for the formulation of the Schools of Thought. As the Schools multiplied, various juristic manuals were compiled, many a time the opinions of the jurist was noted and recorded by his students. Across the Islamic empire a number of scholars were renowned for their grasp of Islamic law and theological understanding, jurists such as Malik ibn Anas, Al Awza’i, Al Laith ibn Sa’d, Sufyan Al Thawri, and Abu Hanifah. Later generations included Muhammad ibn Hasan Al Shaibani, Abu Yusuf, Ibn Al Qasim, Al Shafi’i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal.
The schools of the early jurists came to be powerful institutions enriching the Islamic legal system providing it with many functions, one of these being the ability to deal with unprecedented issues from various angles allowing future jurists to deal with any given issue comprehensively regardless of time or place. However, a brief look into the history of the Schools of law clearly demonstrates that there have been periods in Islamic history where key protagonists belonging to various schools would instigate negative partisanship viewing the schools as ends in themselves rather than merely as a means to understand the Islamic sources of authority. As a result of this distorted outlook, the schools subsequently became institutions of disunity which in turn led to the stagnation of the Muslim ummah (nation) as the development of Islamic thought and law had now become nearly non-existent. This rigid view of the schools of thought led to many adherents viewing other schools with suspicion and reproach, and thus, the mutual understanding and open-mindedness that once existed in the formulative years had now been lost.
In contemporary times, such rigidity has continued whereby adherents of a school of law continue to treat others with suspicion even when there is a legitimate difference of opinion. This is seen no more so than in the staunch opposition found directed by the Madhabis (those who remain ardent in strictly adhering to one school of thought) towards the Salafis, viewing them with contempt although in reality there exists no grounds for doing so. Similarly, there are Salafis who incorrectly claim that the Hanafis have relegated the Qur’an and Sunnah below the sayings of Abu Hanifah – something which clearly demonstrates the Salafis’ ignorance. The Madhabis have advocated a strict adherence to one school of Islamic law. The salafis on the other hand have tended to not to focus on schools of thought, but the sources of Islamic authority themselves. Misunderstandings on both sides have led to a sustained conflict between Salafism and Madhabism which is continuously exacerbated by ignorance, arrogance and insincerity.
This article is merely an attempt to bring about discussion between Salafis and Madhabis with the intention to instigate mutual understanding, unity, and the revival of Islamic thought.
We note firstly that both sides use terminology sparingly without the slightest inclination as to what these terms actually mean. Over time the usage of words tend to warp their meanings and we come to the point where two people use the same term yet argue two very different things. Thus it is clearly apparent that there needs to be some clarification as to the definitions of Salafism and Madhabism, whereby many disagreements take place due to ignorance of their defining characteristics. Aristotle once said, “How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms.”
The most widespread school of thought in the world today is that of Imam Abu Hanifah (may Allah have mercy on him). The majority of British Muslims are also Hanafis given that most have a South Asian origin and South Asians are predominantly Hanafi. Yet, the term ‘Hanafi’ proves to be allusive for many of those who ascribe themselves as such, since adherence to the Hanafi School of law can be in many different ways and its ambiguity raises the question as to whether ‘following’ Abu Hanifah’s jurisprudence means to adhere to the end result of his evidence-based reasoning (ijhtihad), or the actual methodology (usul) by which he arrived at a particular outcome.
In the same way, many Salafis are not entirely clear as to what Salafism entails, assuming that it is simply to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah – a problematic definition since it implies that others do not. There are none who claim that Abu Hanifah or any other great Imam for that matter did not adhere to the Qur’an and Sunnah – he (may Allah have mercy on him) was one of the four major Imams who have been accepted by the ummah. Thus, it is preposterous to assert, or even imply for that matter, that he disregarded the Islamic sources of Law, and likewise, it is also incorrect to claim that his understanding of Islam had detracted from the way of the Companions. Scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Al Qayyim who are widely accepted as having been major proponents of Salafism often quoted and endorsed many views of Abu Hanifah. Ibn Taymiyyah stated that many a time he would ask his opponents to prove whether he had ever contradicted the way and views of the first three generations of Muslims (which Abu Hanifah belonged to). Furthermore, Saudi Arabian scholars are characterised by many as the archetypal Salafis, yet they too endorse many distinctive opinions of Imam Abu Hanifah as they do other Imams. In fact, there is no single genuine Salafi who rejects the four schools of thought.
- They consider the Qur’an and Sunnah as the eternal and infallible sources of legislation.
- They refer to Arabic language as the main tool to interpret the texts of legislation.
- They accept the consensus of the Ummah as binding and therefore they see it as a source of legislation.
- They strive to follow the truth insofar as they are able to.
There are a number of statements where the four Imams clearly state that in the case of incongruity between their opinions and a hadith, the hadith should always take precedence. A key Quranic instruction is the verse,
“O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those of you (Muslims) who are in authority. (And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the Last Day. That is better and more suitable for final determination.”
Problems have occurred when both Madhabis and Salafis blindly and fanatically adhere to the injunctions of their respective Imams without considering the methodology that accompanies them. Consideration of these fundamental principles, the foundations upon which each Imam built his conclusion, should not be ignored. To illustrate this, we find that great scholars within each school would adopt opinions different to those of their respective Imams. For instance, Imam Abu Yusuf, one of the main students of Imam Abu Hanifah, opined as his teacher did with regards to the permissibility of trading in trusts/endowments (waqf). However, when he visited Madinah, Ismail ibn Ulayyah narrated to him that Umar ibn Al Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) gave away his shares in Khaibar (which were part of a trust/endowment) as charity and never sold them. Imam Abu Yusuf altered his position and said, ‘Had Imam Abu Hanifah known of this, he would have adopted it’.
Another example is taken from the great Maliki scholar Ibn Abd Al Barr (368- 463) who stated that Zakah is obligatory on figs although Imam Malik in the Muwatta’ considered it non-applicable as it did not fit his definition of a commodity upon which Zakat is due. Ibn Abd Al Barr said, “Had Imam Malik known that figs can be stored without being spoilt, he would have declared Zakat obligatory on it.” Examples of this nature are numerous and the underlying principle is that true adherence to a school is where one follows the methodology and approach of his Imam rather than merely following each verdict as an isolated ruling. Some may argue that it is impractical for the laity to understand the principles by which the Imam of a school of thought derived his opinions. The response to this is to point out that the matter is not for the laity to study and understand the detailed principles in Islamic Law, but instead for them to be open-minded and possess the flexibility that allows them to adopt other opinions once they are satisfied that it is closest to the truth (while remaining tolerant of other orthodox views). However, those who study Islamic law can, to a certain extent, understand the origins of the legal opinion and the method by which it was derived, and thus will be held accountable by Allah accordingly.
It should also be emphasised that following a particular school does not free a person from putting any effort to follow the truth that has been revealed by Allah the Most High. Allah will not hold people accountable for their lack of adherence to a specific school, but rather for their identification of the correct ruling in any particular matter. Therefore, once an adherent of a school of thought becomes aware of another opinion in opposition to the one adopted by their school of thought, they have been afforded a good enough grounds to investigate further – it is incorrect for anyone to assume that they are not obliged to investigate merely because the opinion does not source from their school.
In conclusion, it is perfectly possible for a Hanafi to ascribe to Salafism whilst a Salafi may be an adherent of a school of thought being convinced of its methodology. To be a Hanafi is to ascribe to a certain understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah, whereas Salafism is to ascribe to an Islamic methodology and outlook, namely that of the earliest generations of Islam. There is no contradiction between the two since they are not in the same category. One is to follow an interpretation of the Islamic sources of authority – fiqh; and the other is to have a distinguished manner by which to practise one’s faith and approach its different aspects – manhaj. Once this is understood, we can call for a revival of the relationship between adherents of the various schools whereby they should strive to follow the same methodology of their Imams. There also needs to be an endeavour where those who attribute themselves to Salafism need to understand what truly is blameworthy when it comes to following Schools of Thought.
Furthermore, we should not limit Salafism to a method of deriving Islamic law, but instead as a way by which to follow the early generations in all aspects of the faith such as believing in and preserving the Orthodox Islamic creed (aqidah), worshipping Allah, keeping away from sins, maintaining morals and etiquettes, and implementing Islamic rules of engagement with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It is up to us to achieve a breakthrough in uniting Muslims, something which will undoubtedly ensure a lasting revival since we learn from history that the recovery of a nation is preceded by a revitalisation in its thoughts and ideas. Likewise, such a revival equips the ummah with the necessary tools to free its thinking from narrow-mindedness, partisanship, shallowness, ignorance, and an inferiority complex. Allah says,
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah, and be not divided among yourselves, and remember Allah’s Favour on you, for you were enemies one to another but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His Grace, you became brethren – you were on the brink of a pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus Allah makes His signs clear to you, that you may be guided.”