Legitimate Islamic Learning: Being People of Isnad
One 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 Ittaba‘ah Ghayra’l-Madhahib al-Arba‘ah (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.