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“We Only Follow the Qur’an & Sunnah.” Really?

In an earlier post (it can be read here), I discussed how the words of the Four Imams (Abu Hanifah, Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Ahmad bin Hanbal) concerning taqlid (incorrectly translated as “blind following”) continue to be misunderstood and misused by many groups and individuals today.

In this post, I wish to tie-up some loose ends on the subject of taqlid – “the following of qualified scholarship” – by addressing some common objections raised about the matter. It is advisable to read the previous posting on the subject, if it has not already been read, for it lays down certain cornerstones for us. Scholars state, man lam yutqin al-usul hurima’l-wusul – “Whoever lacks a firm grasp of the foundations, will be barred from arriving [at the goal].”

1. The objection most frequently heard against the permissibility of taqlid is: “We only follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah!” What is commonly implied by such a statement is: (i) that each Muslim has a duty to go directly to the root sources and derive their own fatwas and religious rulings, or (ii) that every Muslim must “weigh-up” the proofs and “select” the strongest scholarly view on the issue. Aside for highly seasoned jurists or fuqaha, permitting this to the religiously unqualified is nothing short of a wicked and woeful innovation. Explaining Ibn Hazm’s (d.456H/1064CE) words, ‘I follow the truth, make ijtihad, and do not limit myself to a [single] madhhab,’ Imam al-Dhahabi (d.748H/1348CE) wrote:

‘Yes! Whoever reaches the level of ijtihad, and a number of scholars testify to it, taqlid is not allowed to him. Much like how a novice jurist, or a layman who has memorised the Qur’an or most of it, is not permitted to attempt ijtihad at all. How could he make ijtihad? What could he possible say? On what can he base his opinion? How can he fly and he has yet to grow wings? The third type is a highly skilled, intelligent, discerning jurist who – having committed to memory a primer in fiqh, and on juristic maxims and legal theory; mastered grammar; memorised the Book of God and busied himself with its exegesis (tafsir); and possesses a sharp, analytical intellect – has now reached a rank of restricted ijtihad and is thus qualified to investigate the scholarly proofs. So whenever the truth becomes apparent to him in any given issue, or the proofs well established, and it has been acted upon by one of the great Imams like Abu Hanifah, for instance, or Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Abu ‘Ubayd, Ahmad or Ishaq, he should follow [what he sees as] the truth; without chasing concessions, but instead by being scrupulous. Taqlid is not allowed to him in the issue after the proofs have been established to him.’1

Now compare this with the da’wah that obligates (or at least, encourages) those who have nothing of the above depicted skill-set to “investigate” and weigh-up proofs! A mournful case of ducklings that can barely wade into water, convinced they can swan gracefully across the lake of legal rulings. Inna li’Llahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun!

2. A second objection runs as follows: If taqlid is “accepting the ruling of a scholar, but without knowing the proof for it,” then when a layman learns a proof in an issue, he is no longer a muqallid (one who is doing taqlid). To this confusion, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) wrote:

‘As for someone who knows the opinion of one scholar; along with his proofs, but not that of the other scholar or his proof, he is still from the generality of the muqallids. He is certainly not of those scholars who can evaluate and weigh-up [proofs].’2

This is a highly important point that is very often misunderstood. The great majority of jurists maintain that if a person is aware of a basic proof (dalil) for any given matter, but is unaware of the complete proofs, he is still classed as a muqallid (some calling him a muqallid muttabi‘ – a muqallid nonetheless). This complete knowledge entails three aspects: knowing the relevant proof-texts; knowing how rulings actually arise from them; and knowing how to resolve textual conflicts (ta‘arud al-adillah). Hence the muqallid includes: (i) a layman who does not know any proofs; and (ii) a layman who knows some proofs, but in an incomplete manner, and (iii) a student of fiqh ‘who has gained some learning of a law school and has studied a few of the manuals of the later scholars … yet despite this, is deficient in examining the proofs and evaluating the views of the jurists. Such a person is also required to perform taqlid.’3

3. Another popular anti-taqlid objection bases itself upon the verse: When it is said to them: “Follow what God has sent down,” they retort: “We will follow what we found our forefathers following.” What! Even though their forefathers understood nothing, nor where they rightly-guided. [2:170] It is claimed that since God condemned blind-following of one’s forefathers, this is proof that taqlid of the scholars is also forbidden. Al-Qurtubi (d.671H/1273CE) rebutted this erroneous thinking centuries ago, saying:

‘One group have linked this verse to the condemnation of taqlid, since God censured the unbelievers for following their forefathers in their falsehood and emulate them in their disbelief and disobedience: which is true in terms of falsehood. But as for taqlid in the truth, then this is one of the foundational principles of the religion, and one of the safeguards that the unlearned Muslims who are unable to examine detailed issues can take shelter in.’4

Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘One who [totally] turns away from following the Book and the Sunnah, and from obeying God and His Messenger – turning instead to his customs; or that of his forefathers or community – is from the people of ignorance; deserving to be under the threat of divine chastisement … As for one who is unable to ascertain the ruling of God or His Messenger, and so follows in the issue a scholar; knowing of no other view preferable than his one, he is to be praised and rewarded; not rebuked or punished.’5

In conclusion: The matter of taqlid and ijtihad is straightforward enough, a summary of which is given in this passage from Ibn Taymiyyah: ‘What the great majority of the ummah hold is that ijtihad is permitted, in general; and taqlid is permitted, in general. Ijtihad is not obligated on everyone while taqlid forbidden, nor is taqlid obligated on everyone and ijtihad forbidden. Rather, ijtihad is legislated for whoever possesses the qualification, while taqlid is legislated for those incapable of ijtihad.’6

A final point to press home. If the above type of taqlid is sanctioned by religion – not only that, but jurists have reached a consensus (ijma‘) on its lawfulness; how then can it then be spoken of in derogatory terms (i.e. taqlid is “blind-following”)? Rather, piety demands that this type of taqlid be spoken of in praiseworthy terms and be depicted for what it truly is: “Following qualified scholarship in the detailed rulings (furu‘) of the religion.” After all, following qualified fatwas and rulings, without being burdened with knowing the juristic reasoning behind them, is something one gets rewarded for by God. The muqallid is praised for taking recourse to taqlid, never censured! Indeed, abandoning such misrepresentations of taqlid, and the doors of religious anarchy this has flung open, is seriously long overdue.

1. Siyar Alam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 18:191-92.

2. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:233.

3. Ibn Mu‘ammar, Risalah fi’l-Ijtihad wa’l-Taqlid (Jeddah: Dar al-Andalus, 2000), 43-46.

4. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:142.

5. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa, 20:225.

6. ibid., 20:203-4.

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Misunderstanding the Four Imams on Taqlid?

AwzlXG2CQAIdDt-.jpg-largeLet me clarify two issues before I explain the point of this post. The first issue that needs clarifying is: what is taqlid? The second one is: who are the Four Imams?

[1] As an Arabic word, taqlid stems from qallada, meaning: ‘To place a collar (qiladah) around the neck.’1 It is called this because the person 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 legal sense, taqlid is: ‘Accepting the opinion of someone without a proof (qabulu qawli’l-ghayr min ghayri hujjah).’2

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.3

[2] 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.4

Several mujtahid scholars have graced our history; some of whom had a school of law (madhhab) ascribed to them, while others didn’t. Of them, the madhhabs 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 along with their legal doctrines are known as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali madhhabs, respectively.

The issue: There are certain statements reported from these above Four Imams which explicitly state that one should not make taqlid of them. That is, one must not follow their juristic opinions until one is aware of the proofs or 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.

Whether in mass-marketed books on “sahih” Islam, websites, or YouTube videos, this claim is hammered home again and again by such people. Hence let us examine this claim, by first citing a sample of the verdicts of the Four Imams concerning the issue of taqlid – may God bestow His mercy upon them all.

Imam Abu Hanifah stated: ‘It is unlawful for anyone to accept our opinion if he does not know from where we took it.’5

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.’6

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.’7

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.’8

Analysing the above 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 opinions 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 Quranic Arabic language), clearly 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 Quranic 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 student, as well as anyone like them who were, in varying competent degrees, versed in legal reasoning and ijtihad. Indeed, this has always been the classical scholarly understanding of their words.

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) said the following, in conclusion to one of his fatwas on the issue of taqlid:

‘As for the likes of Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Sufyan; or Ishaq b. Rahawayah or Abu ‘Ubayd, there is a clear stipulation in another place that he [Imam Ahmad] deemed it unlawful for a scholar capable of legal inference (istidlal) to make taqlid of the aforementioned. He said: “Do not make taqlid of me, nor Malik, al-Shafi‘i, or al-Thawri.” … He ordered the lay people to seek fatwas from Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd, Abu Thawr and Abu Mus‘ab. But he prohibited those of his students who were scholars – such as Abu Dawud, ‘Uthman ibn Sa‘id, Ibrahim al-Harbi, Abu Bakr al-Athram, Abu Zur‘ah, Abu Hatim al-Sijistani, Muslim and others – from making taqlid of any other scholar. He would say: ‘Stick to the basic principle by [following] the Book and the Sunnah.9

Conclusion: To some, all of this may sound like a mere piece of academia. But it isn’t. The consequence of misusing the sayings of the Four Imams, or of misunderstanding them, has been both tragic and terrible (and not without its irony too).

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 lay people should perform taqlid of their scholars.’10 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, peace be upon him; no difference existed about its legality.’11 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) stated: ‘It is the view of some of the Qadarites 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 Companions.’12 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]’13

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 understanding 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 handful of contemporary shaykhs – these, and other ills, now abound; continuing to shatter our unity and fragment our communities.

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

1. Al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1990), 3:650.

2. Al-Ghazali, al-Mustasfa min ‘Ilm al-Usul (Cairo: Maktabah al-Tijariyyah, 1937), 2:387.

3. Cf. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 1991), 1:64.

4. As per al-Shanqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddah: Dar al-Manarah, 1994), 622.

5. Cited in Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 3:470.

6. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 775; no.1435.

7. Ibn Abi Hatim, Adab al-Shafi‘i, 93; cited in al-Albani, Sifat al-Salat al-Nabi (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 52.

8. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 3:469.

9. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 20:226.

10. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1997), 11:181.

11. Adwa’ al-Bayan (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 7:318.

12. Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1993), 3:1019.

13. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, 989.

Legitimate Islamic Learning: Being People of Isnad

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 may make something a part of the religion which should 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 instructed, it shall 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? [42:21]

What follows are six points summarising, God-willing, 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 The upshot is that one avoids learning religion from those who are not Imams; or people not schooled, qualified or authorised in the traditional 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, peace be upon him. 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 wrong 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 God declared in the Qur’an: Indeed, it was We who sent down the Remembrance, and of a surety We will preserve it. [15:9] Consider also the following hadiths: ‘My ummah shall never unite upon misguidance.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2255] And: ‘There will never cease to be a group of my ummah unmistakably upon 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: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali. 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.

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