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Islamique Magazine Online | October 29, 2020

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Madhabs: To Follow Or Not To Follow?

Madhabs: To Follow Or Not To Follow?

Based on writings by Shaykh Abu Aaliyah (


As an Arabic word, taqlid stems from qallada, which means: ‘To put a collar (qiladah) around the neck.’ It is called this because the one who does taqlid – the muqallid – entrusts his affair to the one he is performing taqlid of. He is like someone being led by the collar, so to speak. In its religious or technical sense, taqlid is: ‘Accepting the opinion of someone without a proof (qabulu qawli’l-ghayr min ghayri hujjah).’

Usually, taqlid is taken to mean a layman accepting a religious ruling from a qualified jurist or scholar without being burdened with knowing the proof behind the ruling. In doing so, the layman agrees to be guided by the scholar out of trust and confidence he has in his scholarship. A jurist who is qualified to examine and evaluate the evidences from the Qur’an or the Hadiths, so as to extract or infer legal rulings from them, is called a mujtahid. The process of a mujtahid ‘expending or exerting every possible effort so as to evaluate the evidences’ – to leave no stone unturned, as it were – is called ijtihad.

Several mujtahid scholars have graced our history; some of whom had a school of law (madhab) ascribed to them, and some who didn’t. Out of them, the madhabs of only four mujtahids endured: they were the schools of Imams Abu Hanifah (d.150H/767CE), Malik (d.179H/795CE), Shafi‘i (d.204H/820CE), and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d.241H/855CE). Their schools and legal doctrines are known as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali madhhabs, respectively.

There are certain statements reported from these above Four Imams which explicitly state that one should not make taqlid of them. That is, one should not follow their juristic opinions until one is aware of the proofs and legal reasoning behind their judgements and rulings. Some people have seen in such words a justification, not just for qualified jurists to evaluate proof-texts, but for the non-qualified, the ill-versed and the down right ignorant to dabble in the fine art of juristic reasoning too. The bottom line for such people is that they believe the Four Imams were emphatic in prohibiting taqlid to one and all: to scholar and layman alike.

Imam Abu Hanifah stated: “It is unlawful for anyone to accept our opinion if he does not know from where we took it.”

Imam Malik urged: “Indeed, I am but a human being. At times I am correct, at [other] times I err. So look into my sayings: whatever agrees with the Book  and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever contradicts them, ignore it.”

Imam al-Shafi‘i asserted: “For everything I say and there is something authentic from the Prophet, peace be upon him, that opposes my view, then the hadith of the Prophet comes first. So do not make taqlid of me.”

Imam Ahmad declared: “Do not make taqlid of me, nor of Malik, al-Shafi’i, al-Awza’i or al-Thawri. But take from where they took.”


Analysing these statements seems to make a few things pretty clear. Phrases such as, take from where they took (Abu Hanifah, Imam Ahmad) clearly suggests looking into the root sources directly – the root sources being the Qur’an and Hadith. Look into my saying (Imam Malik) is surely an instruction to evaluate the evidences. And then there is the phrase, do not make taqlid of me (al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad) – which pretty much puts a lid on things. Or does it?

There seems to be no shadow of doubt that they all forbade unconditional acceptance of their views without evaluating them first. But the very notion of scrutinising proofs, in the context of a legal argument or discourse (and obviously in the original Qur’anic Arabic language), suggests another thing too: juristic qualification! To believe the Four Imams were addressing the illiterate; or those who could read and write, but had poor knowledge of Arabic grammar and language structures; or even if they were grammar proficient, they have no legal training whatsoever, would be the wildest stretch of the imagination (if it weren’t so ludicrous). The idea that the Four Imams were telling the unqualified, untrained masses (the bulk of whom couldn’t and still cannot understand classical Qur’anic Arabic) to evaluate proof-texts, beggars belief!

Cast in this light, it becomes crystal-clear just who the Four Imams were speaking to in their censure of taqlid. Their words were aimed squarely at their students and anyone like them who were, to some competent degree, versed in legal reasoning and ijtihad. And this has always been the classical scholarly understanding of their words.

As for the layperson, according to Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE), there are two opinions as to whether he is obligated to follow one school of law (madhab) or not. He stipulates: “What the proof necessitates is that a layman is not required to adhere to a specific madhab. Instead, he seeks a fatwa from whomsoever he chooses or whomsoever he encounters (from the scholars) – on condition that he not hunt for concessions (rukhsah). Perhaps those who forbade him from doing this did so because they weren’t convinced that he would not avoid chasing after concessions.”

Thus strictly following one madhab in all that it orders or forbids is not obligated, but nor is it forbidden. Rather it is preferred.

Having said this, the most effective way to learn fiqh, as our scholars have pointed out, is for the seeker to adhere to one specific madhab from the four remaining orthodox Sunni madhabs: namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali. There are many virtues and benefits in doing so; such as:

1)     It avoids the confusion of what to do when faced with differing opinions on a given issue.

2)     It trains the ego to submit to some higher authority, instead of the other way around.

3)     It facillitates the learning of religious rulings, principles and maxims in a systematic fashion.

4)     It ensures that for any religious ruling (hukm) we abide by, we will not be sinful in doing so because we are imitating valid and authoritative rulings; not our own whimsical concoctions.

Shah Wali Allah al-Dehlawi (d.1176H/1762CE) declared: “These four codified madhabs that the ummah – or rather those in it whose views are worth considering – has agreed may be followed, up until our time, then in doing so lie certain benefits which are not hidden. Particularly in our time when peoples’ resolves are hugely deficient; souls are drunk with desires; and each individual is infatuated with his own opinion.”

It is tragic because taqlid – following qualified scholarship without being required to know the proof – is something permitted to lay people by scholarly consensus (ijma‘). Imam al-Qurtubi (d.671H/1273CE) said: “There is no difference between the scholars that the laypeople should perform taqlid of their scholars.” Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Shinqiti (d.1393H/1972CE) wrote: “As for the permitted (type of) taqlid, which none from the Muslims contest, it is a layman making taqlid of a scholar qualified to issue fatwas about the various circumstances and issues one encounters. This type of taqlid was in vogue during the time of the Prophet (SAW); no difference existed about its legality.” Forbidding taqlid to even the lay people not only opposes scholarly consensus, and therefore Sunni orthodoxy; but even more tragically, such a view has, historically, only been associated with the innovators (ahl al-bid‘ah). Which is why Ibn Qudamah (d.620H/1223CE) declared: “It is the view of some of the Qadariyya that the lay people are required to investigate the proofs, even in the detailed religious rulings (furu‘). But this is futile by consensus of the Sahaabah (RA).” One more scholar worth citing is Ibn Abd al-Barr (d.463H/1071CE), who said: “The scholars do not differ that the lay people must make taqlid of their scholars, or that they are the ones meant by God’s words: So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. (16:43)”

It is terrible because of the religious anarchy such a misunderstanding has unleashed; especially in the last decade or so. That countless lay people now fiercely believe they are obligated to examine proofs, and that they cannot accept any scholarly statement on simple trust, has caused untold chaos to souls and society. Hostile arguments, false accusations of “blind following”, ignorant people weighing-up proofs and then trying to thrust their ill-conceived understandings down the throats of others, a new method (manhaj) of da‘wah that distances itself from other Muslims because of their perceived deviancy of taqlid, creating immense mistrust for classical scholarship only to replace it with a cultish following of a tiny handful of contemporary shaykhs – these, and other ills, now abound; continuing to shatter our unity and fragment our communities.

As for the irony, this anti-taqlid posse that is forever quick to label the average lay Muslim with the pejorative term, “blind-follower”, themselves take the sayings of the Four Imams well beyond their intended remit, and disseminate this misreading uncritically and without due examination – so are they not the real blind-followers here?!

In this respect, al-Dhahabi (d.748H/1348CE) said: “You must not believe your madhab is the best one or the one most pleasing to God. You have no proof for this; and nor does the one who differs with you. The Imams, may God be pleased with them, were upon great good. Those issues they were correct in, they receive a double reward; those they erred in, they shall receive a single reward.”

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