According to Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE), there are two opinions whether a lay person is obligated to follow one school of law (madhhab) or not. He stipulates: ‘What the proof necessitates is that a layman is not required to adhere to a specific madhhab. Instead, he seeks a fatwa from whomsoever he chooses or whomsoever he encounters [from the scholars]: on condition that he not hunt for concessions (rukhsah). Perhaps those who forbade him from doing this did so because they weren’t convinced that he would not avoid chasing after concessions.’1
Thus strictly following one madhhab in all that it orders or forbids is not obligated, but nor is it forbidden. Rather it is preferred.
Having said this, the most effective way to learn fiqh, as our scholars point out, is for the seeker to follow one specific madhhab from the four remaining orthodox Sunni madhhabs: namely, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali. There are many benefits and advantages in doing so; such as:
(i) It avoids the confusion of what to do when faced with differing opinions on a given fiqh issue. (ii) It trains the ego to submit to some higher authority, instead of the other way around. (iii) It facilitates the learning of religious rulings, principles and maxims in a systematic fashion. (iv) It ensures that for any religious ruling (hukm) we abide by, we will not be sinful in doing so because we are imitating legitimate and authoritative rulings; not our own whimsical concoctions.
Shah Wali Allah al-Dehlawi (d.1176H/1762CE) stated: ‘These four codified madhhabs that the ummah, or rather those in it whose views are worth considering, has agreed may be followed, up until our time, then in doing so lie certain benefits which are not hidden. Particularly in our time when peoples’ resolves are hugely deficient; souls are drunk with desires; and each individual is infatuated with his own opinion.’2
In the wake of this, therefore, let us now consider some pragmatic steps for acquiring sound knowledge of our fiqh:
1. One either builds on the madhhab they were raised on; cementing and enhancing one’s grasp of it. Or else one commits to learning a madhhab whose teachers and texts are practically and readily accessible.
2. It is preferred to study with a qualified teacher who has been authorised to teach by recognised scholars; starting with a primer or beginners text.
3. Commit to a step-by-step study of fiqh. Begin with the rules related to purification, prayer, zakat and fasting; then move on to the rules concerning marriage, buying and selling; and other relevant areas of fiqh as your needs dictate.
4. One learns the actual rulings – i.e. one must know if the act, or the aspect of the act, is obligatory (wajib), recommended (mustahabb), offensive (makruh), prohibited (haram), or licit (mubah).
5. Learning the proofs (dalil) behind a ruling is commendable; it is not a requirement. The goal is not for us to all become fully-fledged jurists, but to present to God works of faith based on a valid shari‘ah understanding. This taqlid – “following the opinion of a qualified scholar without knowing the proofs” – is allowed in our religion by juristic consensus or ijma‘. Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi (d.620H/1223CE) asserts: ‘Taqlid in the branches of the law (furu‘) is permitted by scholarly consensus.’3
6. Along with learning basic acts of worship (‘ibadat) and social dealings (mu‘amalat), one learns the rights and responsibilities (huquq) owed by us to others: be it to Allah; the Prophet, peace be upon him; parents and relatives; other Muslims; non-Muslims; the animal world; or the Earth itself. One should also study a text which outlines the major sins, as well as learn basic Qur’an recitation (tajwid).
7. Lastly, we should never forget that the fiqh school we follow is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. Biggotry or ta‘assub to any madhhab or scholar is prohibited. In this respect, al-Dhahabi (d.748H/1348CE) said: ‘You must not believe your madhhab is the best one or the one most pleasing to God. You have no proof for this; nor does the one who differs with you. The Imams, may God be pleased with them, were all upon great good. Those issues wherein they were correct, they will receive a double reward; those in which they erred, they shall receive a single reward.”4
Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) stated: ‘Rather, the names that are permissible to call oneself by – such as an ascription to an imam like Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali; or a shaykh like Qadiri or ‘Adawi; or tribes like Qaysi or Yemani; or region like Syrian, Iraqi or Egyptian – then it is unlawful to test people using them, or form allegiances or enmity around them. Rather the noblest people in God’s sight are those who have the most piety: whatever group they belong to.’5
1. Minhaj al-Talibin (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 2001), 11:117.
2. Hujjat Allah al-Balighah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 1:286-7.
3. Al-Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1996), 3:1015.
4. Bayan Zagh al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2010), 124.
5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:416.