Should a Muslim follow a Particular Madhhab (school of religious law)? By Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad


Should a Muslim follow a madhhab (school of law)? Does he or she have to? Does following a madhhab make practicing Islam easier? The word madhhab comes from the Arabic word tha-ha-ba (ذهب)which means to go. Madhhab (مذهب) means path. In Islamic terminological usage, the word implies, madhhab shar’i (مذهب شرعي) or legal path or madhhab for short.

There are more than four paths or legal philosophies within the boundaries of Muslim legal orthodoxy, however, there are four schools about which people are most familiar. The Maliki, Shaafi’ee, Hanbali, and Hanafi schools of law, Each school is named after the scholar that founded it. Of the four major schools I mentioned here, there is agreeance on 75% of the issues of law. They only disagree on the other 25%.

The differences of opinions between the four schools are rarely theological; they are more interpretive of texts in nature. Many times the differences are in how each scholar looks at the very same verse, hadith or tertiary evidences. Sometimes the difference of opinions between the schools is traced back to what each of the scholars considers acceptable evidence on a given issue, or the strength of the evidence itself. Other times. there have been geo-political considerations that underscored differences of opinion such as when the seat of the caliphate changed from Madinah to Iraq, and then later to Syria which was a far cry from the simple sedentary life of Madinah, the city of the Prophet (SAWS).

Nevertheless, the madhaahib (plural) are here to stay, and madhabism (adherence to a particular madhhab. is gaining traction in the Black American and covert communities. It’s even in some circles, taking on fanatical proportions where people pressure others to adopt a madhhab almost like one adopts a sports franchise to root for.

The irony of it all is that with all the fanfare about madhaahib, the overwhelming majority of vocal madhhab advocates on social media, have no idea what their adopted madhhab position is on most issues except the holding of one’s hands to the side as in the Maliki madhhab, or perhaps the audible enunciation of bismillah in the salat as in the Shaafi’ee madhhab.

The purpose for having a madhhab is for following, and to be in compliance with the sharia, and with what Allah commands, not for proclaiming and beating one chest about their madhhab. The existence of different madhaahib (schools of Islamic legal thought) is to help maintain religious order, having a congruent legal philosophy to facilitate adjudication of one’s religious duties, a means by which people can engage social intercourse, and proper worship of Allah sub’haanahu wa ta’ala, according to the Quran and the Sunna. It had nothing to do with “Crips and Bloods” type bragging rights, or for simply proclaiming that you have a madhhab.

When the student of Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf, became the chief judge under the Abbasid Caliph Haroon, he chose regional judges that adhered to the Hanfi position on the variant issues of law. That’s how the Hanafi madhhab was popularized amongst the subsequent Abbasid dynasty. Abu Yusuf wrote extensively on issues of taxation and state finance which were Issues on which there had to be one opinion in play, otherwise you couldn’t run a government.

If you are an advocate of people following a madhhab, then you should also be an advocate for congregation, communal governance, and of people following Islamic law in their every day affairs, where applicable. You can’ say that your all for following a madhhab, but in real time, not be in compliance with following the legal conclusions of your madhhab as it relates to you and your dealings.

When it comes to social intercourse and affairs of Muslim people like marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance, conflict resolution, criminal matters, contracts, business and profit, and issues that require legal resolution, distinct ruling and judiciary discretion, you or someone you have access to, needs to have an more thorough understanding of the law.

The average person does not have the time or capacity to research every occurrence or expected occurrence of their life to come up with a correct detailed and accurate ruling, and its proofs. That is one reason that the different schools of legal thought and interpretation were developed and employed by Muslim rulers in the first place.

There was never a time in the history of Islam when there were no rulers, no judges, no leaders, no Imams, no Caliphah, no Sultan, and no one in charge of anything. Rulers would employ judges to render the law. The buck always had to stop somewhere. Laws had to be written and codified.

As Muslims, we are required to follow our scriptures (Quran and Sunna), and our scriptures have laws in them. However, you cannot expect people to dig up all the available proofs on every fiqh issue in their life. That would be utter chaos. Even if everyone did their own research for every single issue as some suggest, life is forever changing, and when it does, applicable religious law sometimes do too.

I advocate that people have qualified imams and proper governance, and that the Imams and governing Islamic bodies have a madhhab, or some acceptable minhaj and methodology by which proper religious order and governance can be established amongst the common people who really want to practice Islam. The applicable product of a madhhab is hukm shar’iy (Islamic ruling). Historically for centuries, everyday people knew very little about the madhhab, usool, adilla (proofs) or the history of their scholars, they simply depended on their leaders, local Imams, and scholars, to teach them the right way. How do I pray? How do I fast? How do I divide my inheritance? What constitutes a marriage contract? What’s incumbent on me on this or that matter? What’s the ruling on food? Et cetera..

It is therefore better, in my view, that people do follow an accepted madhaahib when it comes to religious law if they are able. That way the buck would stop somewhere.

People should not be in a perpetual state of research about their every day life issues as far as sharia law is concerned. The voluminous amounts of proofs and detail that go into extracting law for a particular madhhab is ore than just a simple one volume book of law. When you read that the Shaafi’ee position on an issue is so and so, or that a Maliki or Hanbali position on an issue is so and such, what you’re reading is a summery of research that has been checked by hundreds and hundreds of scholars. Furthermore, the official position of the madhhab on an issue of law, does not necessarily reflect the position of the founder of that school of law. Scholarship in Islam is evolutionary, For example, after the death of Imam Muhamad Idris al-Shaafi’ee, other Shaafi’ee scholars uncovered and new evidences for some pervious rulings, unbeknownst to Imam Shaafi’ee, and when Abu Yusuf became the chief judge during the Abbasid period, he differed with his teacher Abu Hanifah on about a third of the latter’s rulings.

Sometimes there can be more than one position on a particular issue, within the same madhhab. Historically, regular Muslims were never tasked with or expected to perform scholar level research for each issue of fiqh (which there are hundreds) of their life. That is completely absurd.

However, it would be even better if Muslims, particularly converts or reverts living in a society like the United States, had competent imams and orderly governance of their (religious) affairs so they would have order and so that they could inter-function as a group. There was a time up until the 1960s where each madhhab of the four madhaahib prayed separate prayers at the Haram in Mecca. However each prayer had it’s own Imam and there was order. No civilization has ever advanced or survived without order. Not ever in history. Not that I know of. For most of Muslim history, people have respected each other’s different madhhab persuasions, although that has not always been the case, People fought and even waged war over legal opinions all throughout Muslim history. When the Ottomans banned slavery of Blacks, the Mufti in Hijaz declared their blood halal.

Popularization of the madhaahib had more to do with establishing order in worship, and in governance than it did with veneration of a particular scholar. When the student of Abu Hanifa [d. 767 CE], Abu Yusuf, became the chief judge under the Caliph Haroon, he chose regional judges that adhered to the Hanafi position on the variant issues of law. That’s how the Hanafi madhhab was popularized amongst the subsequent Abbasids. Abu Yusuf [d. 798 CE] wrote extensively on issues of taxation and state finance which were Issues on which there had to be one opinion, otherwise you couldn’t run a government.

According to the historian, Imam Adhabi, when the partisan Shaafi’ee judge, Abu Zar’ah at-Thaqafi [b, 915 CE], became chief judge of Damascus his influence led to Shaafi’ee law becoming the law of the land there. That remains until this day. Before that, they showed a preference for the fiqh of Imam Abdul-Rah’maan al-Awzaa’ee [d.774 CE].

Even our judiciary system in the United States, mirrors in some way the traditional state judiciary system that existed amongst previous Muslim nations. Except that in Black Muslim America today, there is little governance, just a mob, where everyone is their own Shaykh and just about any shaykh is given governing authority. Even those who are unknown. That does not bode well for order.

In conclusion, . When it comes to just performing your prayer, and the every day functions of conduct, and basic religious practices, you can get by with simply following what’s clear and generally agreed upon in the hadith of the Prophet. Even in hadith there are differences in interpretation and strengths, weaknesses and variations of the uses of the evidences, but your personal salat (prayer) affects only you. So whether you pray with your hands to your sides or folded across your chest, is a matter that affects on you. It is between you and Allah.

However, following a madhhab if done beyond a mere proclamation, could make life simpler and in the long run, and allow you to practice more of your Islam correctly without having to personally research each and every step in your life, which frequently leads to frustration and burnout. And Allah knows best.

Abu Laith Luqman Ibn Abdulkarim Muhammad Ahmad

Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad is an Imam and Resident Scholar at the Toledo Masjid al-Islam in Toledo Ohio. He can be reached at imamabulaith@yahoo.com. Support @ Cash App to: $abulaith2


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