Monday, 20 June 2011

What is a Madhhab? Why is it necessary to follow one?

What is
a Madhhab? Why is it necessary to follow one?

Ha Mim Keller 2000

The word madhhab is derived from an Arabic word meaning "to
go" or "to take as a way", and refers to a mujtahid's
choice in regard to a number of interpretive possibilities in deriving
the rule of Allah from the primary texts of the Qur'an and hadith
on a particular question. In a larger sense, a madhhab represents
the entire school of thought of a particular mujtahid Imam, such
as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi'i, or Ahmad--together with many first-rank
scholars that came after each of these in their respective schools,
who checked their evidences and refined and upgraded their work.
The mujtahid Imams were thus explainers, who operationalized the
Qur'an and sunna in the specific shari'a rulings in our lives that
are collectively known as fiqh or "jurisprudence". In
relation to our din or "religion", this fiqh is only part
of it, for the religious knowledge each of us possesses is of three
types. The first type is the general knowledge of tenets of Islamic
belief in the oneness of Allah, in His angels, Books, messengers,
the prophethood of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace),
and so on. All of us may derive this knowledge directly from the
Qur'an and hadith, as is also the case with a second type of knowledge,
that of general Islamic ethical principles to do good, avoid evil,
cooperate with others in good works, and so forth. Every Muslim
can take these general principles, which form the largest and most
important part of his religion, from the Qur'an and hadith.

The third type of knowledge is that of the specific understanding
of particular divine commands and prohibitions that make up the
shari'a. Here, because of both the nature and the sheer number of
the Qur'an and hadith texts involved, people differ in the scholarly
capacity to understand and deduce rulings from them. But all of
us have been commanded to live them in our lives, in obedience to
Allah, and so Muslims are of two types, those who can do this by
themselves, and they are the mujtahid Imams; and those who must
do so by means of another, that is, by following a mujtahid Imam,
in accordance with Allah's word in Surat al-Nahl,

" Ask those who recall, if you know not " (Qur'an 16:43),
and in Surat al-Nisa, " If they had referred it to the Messenger
and to those of authority among them, then those of them whose task
it is to find it out would have known the matter " (Qur'an
4:83), in which the phrase those of them whose task it is to find
it out, expresses the words "alladhina yastanbitunahu minhum",
referring to those possessing the capacity to draw inferences directly
from the evidence, which is called in Arabic istinbat.

These and other verses and hadiths oblige the believer who is
not at the level of istinbat or directly deriving rulings from the
Qur'an and hadith to ask and follow someone in such rulings who
is at this level. It is not difficult to see why Allah has obliged
us to ask experts, for if each of us were personally responsible
for evaluating all the primary texts relating to each question,
a lifetime of study would hardly be enough for it, and one would
either have to give up earning a living or give up ones din, which
is why Allah says in surat al-Tawba, in the context of jihad:

" Not all of the believers should go to fight. Of every section
of them, why does not one part alone go forth, that the rest may
gain knowledge of the religion and admonish their people when they
return, that perhaps they may take warning " (Qur'an 9:122).

The slogans we hear today about "following the Qur'an and
sunna instead of following the madhhabs" are wide of the mark,
for everyone agrees that we must follow the Qur'an and the sunna
of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). The point is
that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is no longer
alive to personally teach us, and everything we have from him, whether
the hadith or the Qur'an, has been conveyed to us through Islamic
scholars. So it is not a question of whether or not to take our
din from scholars, but rather, from which scholars. And this is
the reason we have madhhabs in Islam: because the excellence and
superiority of the scholarship of the mujtahid Imams--together with
the traditional scholars who followed in each of their schools and
evaluated and upgraded their work after them--have met the test
of scholarly investigation and won the confidence of thinking and
practicing Muslims for all the centuries of Islamic greatness. The
reason why madhhabs exist, the benefit of them, past, present, and
future, is that they furnish thousands of sound, knowledge-based
answers to Muslims questions on how to obey Allah. Muslims have
realized that to follow a madhhab means to follow a super scholar
who not only had a comprehensive knowledge of the Qur'an and hadith
texts relating to each issue he gave judgements on, but also lived
in an age a millennium closer to the Prophet (Allah bless him and
give him peace) and his Companions, when taqwa or "godfearingness"
was the norm--both of which conditions are in striking contrast
to the scholarship available today.

While the call for a return to the Qur'an and sunna is an attractive
slogan, in reality it is a great leap backward, a call to abandon
centuries of detailed, case-by-case Islamic scholarship in finding
and spelling out the commands of the Qur'an and sunna, a highly
sophisticated, interdisciplinary effort by mujtahids, hadith specialists,
Qur'anic exegetes, lexicographers, and other masters of the Islamic
legal sciences. To abandon the fruits of this research, the Islamic
shari'a, for the following of contemporary sheikhs who, despite
the claims, are not at the level of their predecessors, is a replacement
of something tried and proven for something at best tentative.

The rhetoric of following the shari'a without following a particular
madhhab is like a person going down to a car dealer to buy a car,
but insisting it not be any known make--neither a Volkswagen nor
Rolls-Royce nor Chevrolet--but rather "a car, pure and simple".
Such a person does not really know what he wants; the cars on the
lot do not come like that, but only in kinds. The salesman may be
forgiven a slight smile, and can only point out that sophisticated
products come from sophisticated means of production, from factories
with a division of labor among those who test, produce, and assemble
the many parts of the finished product. It is the nature of such
collective human efforts to produce something far better than any
of us alone could produce from scratch, even if given a forge and
tools, and fifty years, or even a thousand. And so it is with the
shari'a, which is more complex than any car because it deals with
the universe of human actions and a wide interpretative range of
sacred texts. This is why discarding the monumental scholarship
of the madhhabs in operationalizing the Qur'an and sunna in order
to adopt the understanding of a contemporary sheikh is not just
a mistaken opinion. It is scrapping a Mercedes for a go-cart.



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