In terms of studying any discipline so as to gain some degree of proficiency, two things must be born in mind: the need to learn step-by-step, as well as the need for a qualified teacher.
Learning in stages/step-by-step (bi tadarruj) can be gleaned from the following words of the Prophet, peace be on him: inna hadha’l-dina matin fa awghilu fihi bi rifq – ‘Verily this religion is strong, so go through it gently.’ [Ahmad, Musnad, 3:199]
Received wisdom here comes in the form of this remark: man rama al-‘ilma jumlatan dhahaba ‘anhu jumlatan – ‘Whoever acquires knowledge all at once, shall lose it all at once.’ Also: izdihamu’l-‘ilm fi’l-sami‘ madallatu’l-fahm – ‘Cramming knowledge into the hearing, causes understanding to be lost.’
For the serious mutafaqqih or “student of fiqh,” Ibn Qudamah (d.620H/1223CE), one of the most highly celebrated jurists in the Hanbali madhhab, penned a series of fiqh texts which would take the seeker from a beginner level, to an intermediate one, and finally to becoming an accomplished jurist or faqih.
The first text is a primer in Hanbali law, and is aptly called al-‘Umdah: “The Reliance”. It gives the relied upon (mu‘tamad) rulings of the school, containing minimum proofs.
Next is al-Muqni‘: “The Satisfier” which introduces two or more views of the school on any one given issue or mas’alah.
The third manual is al-Kafi: “The Sufficer”. It is just above an intermediate level, again relating only the relied upon position, but this time with copious proofs for each issue in preperation for the task of ijtihad and how each ruling relates to the proof-texts. In some issues, more than one opinion is related.
The last work is the highly-advanced, magesterial al-Mughni: “The Enricher”. It builds on the previous texts by relating the positions of the mujtahid imams of other schools: discussing their differences and proof-texts; their juristic merits, rationales, strengths and weaknesses; and then concluding with his own preferred view. In most issues, his conclusions agree with the Hanbali madhhab; in some instances they do not.
The above is an example of the gradual, step-by-step method orthodox scholarship has always adhered to; a method which produced as its fair fruits the great jurists of Sunni Islam. As for gaining fiqh by way of fiqh al-maqarin, “comparative law,” without first being grounded in any one madhhab, this would be laughable if it were not so reckless and dangerous.
Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi wrote the above books in the seventh century. The Hanbali madhhab, like other law schools, continued to develop since then. Texts and manuals penned by later jurist-authors have tended to be the ones taught, studied and used for fatwas in centuries after. Ibn Badran (d.1346H/1927CE), one of the last great Hanbali scholars of the previous century, advises the following course of study for learning the madhhab:
Commence with Ibn Balban’s primer, Akhsar al-Mukhtasarat, or al-Buhuti’s ‘Umdat al-Talib. Then progress to Ibn Qudamah’s al-‘Umdah; if unavailable, then Mar‘i b. Yusuf al-Karmi’s Dalil al-Talib. Following this intermediary level, al-Buhuti’s Rawd al-Murbi‘ should be studied. The final level of progression, al-Bahuti’s Sharh Muntaha al-Iradat is engaged with.
He further writes that, upon completion of the first two levels, one studies a primer in Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh). The text he recommends is al-Juwayni’s Waraqat. And that while studying Sharh al-Muntaha at the final level, Ibn Qudamah’s Rawdat al-Nazir in legal theory is also studied.1
Of course, this is not the only Hanbali curriculum that can or should be followed. Instead, what is important is that one is guided by a qualified teacher in this matter, and that a step-by-step curriculum is actually adhered too (man dakhala fi talab al-‘ilm bila shaykh kharaja bila ‘ilm – ‘Whoever seeks knowledge without a teacher, will leave without knowledge’). This has been the tried, tested and fruitful way down through the centuries. In stark contrast, the do-it-yourself method has resulted in little more than religious anarchy, mayhem and chaos. Things, in this sense, need not be fixed if they aren’t broken.
1. Ibn Badran, al-Madkhal ila Madhhab al-Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1981), 487-89.