Manuscripts-a-Timbuktu-15One cannot worship God with loving submission, save with sound sacred knowledge or ‘ilm. The Golden Rule in this regard was stated by Imam al-Bukhari in these terms: al-‘ilmu qabla’l-qawli wa’l-‘aml – ‘Knowledge comes before speech and action.’1 If we don’t possess sound knowledge, we could make something a part of the religion which can never be part of it – effectively introducing an innovation or bid‘ah into Islam. One hadith says: ‘Whoever does an act that we haven’t ordered, it will be rejected.’ [Muslim, no.1718] The Qur’an itself says: Do they have partners who have made lawful for them in religion that which God has given no permission for? [Q.42:21]

What follows are six points summarising the issue of what constitutes legitimate Islamic learning:

1. The crux of how one seeks sacred knowledge is best expressed by a famous maxim: ‘Indeed this knowledge is religion, so look from whom you take your religion.’2 So the upshot is that one avoids learning religion from those who are not Imams; or people not schooled, qualified or authorised in the traditional Islamic sciences: be it in theology, law, hadith, Qur’anic recital (tajwid), or any other discipline.

2. This qualification/authorisation (‘ijazah) must be part of an unbroken chain (isnad) of learning extending back to the Prophet ﷺ. One hadith says: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the fabrications of the liars, and the erroneous interpretations of the ignorant.’ [Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209] If one takes knowledge from those outside of this unbroken chain, there is no telling what deviation can be passed-off as “the real deal,” as is all too often the case in these times.

3. To believe that the truths of Islam existed among the salaf; the pious predecessors, but then “sahih”, “authentic” Islam was lost or neglected for the next thousand years or so; until recently when it was rediscovered, is nothing but a dangerous myth which flies in the face of what is said in the Qur’an: Indeed, it was We who sent down the Remembrance, and surely We will preserve it. [Q.15:9] Consider also the next hadiths: ‘My ummah will never unite upon misguidance.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2255] And: ‘There will never cease to be a group of my ummah evidently on the truth.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2230; Muslim, no.1920] Also the hadith above: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation.’ [Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209]

What these proof-texts collectively tell us is that God has promised that knowledge of Islam shall always be kept intact and be transmitted from one generation of scholars to the next, in an unbroken chain. While it is true that individual scholars can and do err; and while it is true that individual scholars can and do espouse aberrant (shadhdh) opinions that are excluded from the umbrella of legitimate scholarly differences; it is utterly preposterous to believe that many truths and sunnahs were unknown, lost or neglected by the entire scholarly community for many centuries (even a millenium), only to be revived or rediscovered by certain scholars in our time! Such a belief could only be held by one whose heart is plagued either with ignorance (jahalah), innovation (bid‘ah), hypocrisy (nifaq), deviation (zandaqah) or disbelief (kufr). And we seek refuge in God from such things.

4. In terms of fiqh (Islamic law and rulings; or to use its modern equivalent, “positive law”) the unbroken chain now only exists in the four remaining Sunni schools of law or madhhabs: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali schools. To the question as to why a person cannot follow other Imams or schools of fiqh besides these four, Ibn Rajab says: ‘It is said [in reply]: We have already alerted you to the reason for preventing this, which is that the schools of other than these [four] were not widely diffused, nor fully codified. At times views are ascribed to them which they never said, or their pronouncements are understood in ways they never intended. There is no [expert in] these schools to defend them or point out where such slips and errors lie – contrary to the case of the well-known madhhabs.’3 Hence it is from these four madhhabs and their relied-upon (mu‘tamad) manuals and teachers that fiqh must be taken.

5. As to a murajji‘, a “comparatist” (a highly-versed jurist qualified to analyse the views of the mujtahid Imams and to then select the ruling he deems to be the ‘strongest’), al-Dhahabi wrote: ‘There is no doubt, one who has an intimate familiarity with fiqh, and whose knowledge is copious and intentions are sound, should not rigidly cling to one specific madhhab in all that it states. For maybe another madhhab has stronger proofs in a certain issue, or evidence may emerge by which the proof is established to him. In such a case, he must not follow his Imam, but must act by what the proof dictates; following another mujtahid Imam whose view agrees with the evidence – doing so not out of pursuing whims and desires. However, he must not give a fatwa to the public, except in accordance with the madhhab of his Imam.’4

6. Ibn al-Qayyim was asked about someone who possessed Sahih al-Bukhari, or Sahih Muslim, or one of the Sunans, and if he is able to act on the hadiths in them without first consulting a scholar. He replied thus: ‘The correct view in the issue is that there is some detail: If the textual indication in the hadith (dalalat al-hadith) is obvious and clear to whoever hears it, and allows for no other plausable reading, he should act on it and give fatwa according to it: he doesn’t need the approval of any jurist or Imam. The saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is proof in itself, no matter who it opposes. But if the indication is vague, or the intent is unclear, then it is unlawful for him to act on it or to give a fatwa based upon what he thinks it means, until he asks a scholar and gets clarity about the meaning of the hadith … This applies to one who is qualified, but has some shortcomings in his knowledge of fiqh, the principles of the legalists, and the Arabic language. If he isn’t of those who are qualified, his duty is simply to act on what God says: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [16:43]’5

Much more can be said about the subject, but what has preceeded should suffice. The sum and substance being that fiqh authority and orthodoxy resides in the four Sunni schools of law. The current ‘do-it-yourself’ fiqh culture which actively encourages the lay people, or those unschooled in fiqh, to dabble in the sacred texts and to ‘weigh-up’ the proofs (or the equally absurd ‘the-hadith-is-clear’ syndrome), are unwitting pawns who only serve to plunge this fragile ummah into even further religious anarchy. Such a method must be seen for what it truly is: dal mudill: misguided and misguiding! Those holding such mistaken notions must correct them.

1. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2002), 29.

2. Muslim b. al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1991), 14.

3. Al-Radd ala man Ittabaah Ghayra’l-Madhahib al-Arbaah (Makkah: Dar al-‘Alam al-Fuwa’id, 1997), 33-4.

4. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:93-4.

5. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Jeddah: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002) 6:164.

23 thoughts on “Legitimate Islamic Learning: Being People of Isnad

  1. Comment – feet to feet i would have thought in all cultures to step on someones toes is rude..

    During my salah im finding im playing footsie with the brother next to me on occasions as i slowly edge my foot away he edges his towards mine…to the point where the brother is bordering on olympic gymanstics.

    I personally find it so distracting 🙁

    Does foot to foot exist in any of the schools of thought or is this a DIY ruling?

    1. This issue of touching feet to feet (or ankle bone to ankle bone) during the prayer is something which I have already started to write a blog piece about. So if you can wait a while, I’ll attempt to explain the issue then.

      Suffice it to say, and despite certain narrations seemingly suggesting so, I am not aware of any of the four madhhabs that prescribe the literal touching of feet to feet while standing in prayer.

      As for it being a DIY ruling, then if by that we mean it is something made up by non-scholars or non-jurists, then that is not the case. Rather, the practice stems from the opinion of one or two recent scholars and their reading of the words of certain Companions in regards to the instruction to straighten the rows in prayer and stand close together. But the question is, what has classical or normative scholarship understood from such companion-statements?

      As for being distracting (or even annoying), we ask Allah that He grant us patience, focus and khushu‘ in our prayer.

  2. This DIY fiqh that is being propogated is becoming ever present I notice that courses are being run the length and breadth of this country what can we do to combat this surely this needs to be addressed?

    1. This is a good question. Gentleness and wisdom are always great healers.

      As long as we are not talking about non-jurists making up their own fatwas and fiqh rulings – which is categorically forbidden – then the issue boils down to the age old question: must a lay person follow one single madhhab in all that it stipulates or rules? The scholars have two views on this: one saying that after the codification of the madhhabs, following one is an obligation. The other view states that it is not a must, but a preference.

      Of course, there are more details to the above. But whatever view we follow, what is upon us is:

      (i) To ensure we are following qualified fiqh and legitimate juristic rulings.
      (ii) That we are respectful of legitimate, yet different fiqh opinions.
      (iii) That one does not go around declaring his view to be the “strongest” or the most “sahih”. This would be sheer ignorance from one who is not a highly seasoned jurist, or sheer arrogance and bigotry. Whatever the case, the shari‘ah despises such an act.
      (iv) To ensure that legitimate fiqh differences never become a cause for disunity, ill-will or partisanship among Muslims.
      (v) To avoid arguing about such issues at all cost: leave it to the scholars.

      And Allah knows best.

      1. JazakAllah Khayr for an interesting an informative blog post.

        With regards to the age-old issue of whether or not it is obligatory to follow a madhab, I have read that the majority of scholars are in fact of the view that the layperson has no madhab. Al-`aamiyyu laa madhaba lahu. That they are merely required to follow people of knowledge, who may or may not themselves be adherents of one specific madhab in all issues. On this view, my understanding is that it would be permissible for the layperson to adhere to one madhab in all issues, but not necessarily as much as recommended and certainly not obligatory.

        Do you not consider this to be representative of what the majority of scholars in reality opine on this issue?

        This view also seems to be held by the esteemed Shaykh Akram Nadwi (hafidhahullah), as articulated here:

      2. The matter requires proper investigation. Although the view that does not make following a specific madhhab obligatory upon a layman seems to be the majority view, from what I’ve read, understood and been taught. And Allah knows best.

  3. Would it be fair to say that strictly following only one school of Islamic law is actually a matter of ‘check and balance’ to save laymen from falling in to the grave sin of following their whims and desires, which is haraam?

    Secondly, do you agree that those who believe in the possibility of ummah being ‘ignorant’ of some essential shar’i issues for centuries are somehow following the footsteps of people of book in refusing to follow the authorities in law as forewarned by the Prophet SAW in the hadith of Abu Sa’eed Khudri RA in sahih Muslim that you will follow the footsteps of……?

    1. I think it would be more than fair to say that. This was indeed a great concern of the jurists in their deliberation on whether the lay people should be bound to one school or not. Even those who said that they are not bound by a single school feared the grave possibility of lay people following juristic concessions or rukhsas in a way that would be utterly driven by whims and desires; and therefore utterly forbidden.

      As to the second issue, Allah knows best. What is clear is that the truth being lost to the whole scholarly community for a century or so (let alone several centuries), is a textual impossibility.

  4. Asak,
    All the 4 Imams have said one thing for sure, “if anything that we have said comes as a doubt or contradiction, then go back to the Quran, Sunnah & Companions. Verify and if what we have said is wrong then discard it”. The question of ‘foot to foot’ is going a bit out of control. At the time of the Prophet(SAW) and for a very long time after, there were no lines made and still it was told to stand, “shoulder to shoulder and straighten up the lines”. It’s surprising that now that we do have carpets with lines in most of our Masjids we are told to “straighten up the lines and stand shoulder to shoulder & feet to feet”.

    I say this, as a lot of times I have faced issues in regards to ‘foot to foot’. Initially, I felt as if I had to do the splits, just cause someone else wasn’t spreading enough. Then I saw myself and others spreading their feet that far that the shoulders weren’t meeting. The whole idea of “shoulder to shoulder” which was the initial teaching has gone. Why can’t we just make sure to announce that there are lines and even if not, then “stand straight and shoulder to shoulder”…

    Br.Surkheel, I am keen to read your blog in regards to the above…InshaAllah.

    1. I agree with the general content of your comment: it would be sufficient to ask people to stand shoulder to shoulder. That would indeed do the job.

      To insist that it must literally be foot to foot, because that has also been mentioned in the text of the hadith (as the words of a Sahabi), would be to ignore the fact that touching “knee to knee” has been mentioned in the text too!

      Ps. Ah, “the splits” – who hasn’t seen that oddity?

    1. Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.

      Barakallahu fikum. Yes, you may indeed share it.

      May Allah bless your Ramadan and grant us all acceptance from Him.

  5. The Holy Prophet (Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) said ‘”From every succeeding generation its upright folk shall carry this knowledge in turn. They shall repeal from it the distortions of the extremists (tahrif al-ghalin), the (mis)interpretations of the ignorant (ta’wil al-jahilin), and the pretenses of the liars (intihal al-mubtilin).” (Hadith narrated by many of the sahaba in many hadith books, including Tabarani, Ahmad, Ibn Barr, etc, and is Sahih, and definitely not weak).
    This shows that there will be an upright scholarly group who will always exist and win and be prominent, and never be extinct. The Sunnis have always existed and fulfilled those conditions, hence they can be the upright folk in this hadith (I think they definitely are). However other sects that came to exist at one time, but were absent in another time (such as they only came into existence in the 19th century), then know that the hadith indicates that group is not the “upright folk”.

  6. JazakAllah Khayr once again for this beneficial post.

    1. Regarding the end of point number 5, it’s stated: “…However, he must not to give a fatwa to the public, except in accordance with the madhhab of his Imam.”

    Is this principle agreed upon by all? I find somewhat strange the notion that a person who has reached the level of being able to evaluate the different opinions and select what they deem to be the strongest should nevertheless be obliged to give a fatwa contrary to what they deem to (at least most likely) be the truth (bearing in mind that a fatwa is a non-binding legal opinion).

    2. I think the ayah quoted at the end of point number 6 has not been translated accurately. I think it should rather be So ask the people of the remembrance/reminder if you do not know.. Of course, this is still be understood as a reference to the people who have knowledge of the scriptures, but I feel the translation should be faithful to the original nevertheless.

    1. Barakallahu fikum.

      I’m not aware if all the scholars agree upon this instruction (keeping in mind that many others apart from al-Dhahabi have stated the very same), although I’ve yet to find a classical scholar, barring Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, who said and did otherwise. Scholars acting on their ijtihad, for their own personal practice, has long been established among them. As for giving a fatwa to the public with their personal ijtihad, it seems that this was something avoided, in principle.

      The rationale, it would seem, is to avoid religious anarchy arising and to maintain some level of social cohesion. Otherwise, every other person would be following a different fatwa or ruling, thereby diminishing social cohesion and opening the door for everyone enamoured of their own opinion to act recklessly. I think our present age demonstrates precisely this point, don’t you think so?

      As for the verse: In principle, I accept that the translation should be faithful to the original as possible. But since the article was dealing solely with juristic issues, and since the entire corpus of legal literature uses the verse to refer to Muslim scholars and jurists (as opposed to its original context of asking the learned ones from the People of the Book about the concept of revelation), it seems sensible to make the translation as explicit to the context, as possible; so as to make the non-mujtahid’s duty clear. Otherwise we’ll have the extra (distracting) task of explaining g who the “people of reminder/remembrance” are.

      And Allah knows best.

  7. Asalam alaikom dear shk, could u possibly provide along with hadith provided from history, how its impossible for the umnah to hv bn astray till only 100 or 200 yrs past claimed revival?

    Barak Allah feek beloved shk

  8. I didn’t see where else would be best to leave this enquiry. But I share it for your response to benefit a wider audience.

    Let me get your advice on this. Which mosque is better to pray in for a Ḥanbalī, particularly ʿAṣr (assuming all equal for scheduling convenience for activities thereafter)?

    There are three mosques walking distance from me. The nearest: a small, Barelvi basement musalla. The Deobandi and soft-Salafi msoques are equidistant.

    The Deobandi mosque has ʿAṣr always roughly one hour before Maghrib incentivising remaining there. The soft-Salafi is much earlier. I don’t think I could occupy myself for so-long in one place waiting for Maghrib. The Barelvi musalla closes after each prayer pretty much it seems and, as it has no natural light, I wouldn’t like to stay in it anyway.

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