The Madhahib Question: A Call for Dialogue | Part 1

The Madhahib Question- A Call for Dialogue Part 1

Where We Never Want to Be Again …

It was the thirteenth century Hijri (19th Gregorian century) in Tripoli of Lebanon. A Shafi‘i  scholar is reported to have complained to the chief Mufti: “Divide the mosques between us and the Hanafis, for such and such of their scholars consider the Shafi‘i s like a non-Muslim minority, and there is a widespread debate among them about whether a Hanafi may marry a Shafi‘i  woman. Some Hanafi scholars have even said: ‘Such a marriage is not valid, because the faith of a Shafi‘i  is questionable, since they consider it permissible to say ‘I am a believer, if Allah wills,’  This was one hair-splitting debate among scholars about whether one may say insha’Allah while declaring one’s faith.” [i]

Part of the problem was zealous self-assurance of partisan scholars against all others: One Hanafi scholar and a Mu‘tazilite, Ma‘ruf Al-Karkhi (d. 340 AH) said, “Any text of the Quran or Hadith that does not agree with our Madhhab must be either abrogated or reinterpreted!” In other words, it is easier to assume that a verse of Allah has been abrogated than that the opinions of a few men —concerning its interpretation— could be wrong! If such is the case, everyone else must be wrong, deviated.

What Dialogue, what Tolerance!

The Shafi‘is are also known to have returned the favor throughout history. For instance, the famous Shafi‘i  Imam Al-Juwayni (d. 478 AH), the teacher of Imam Al-Ghazali, makes derogatory remarks about the Hanafi Madhhab (school of Islamic legal thought; pl: madhahib) in his book Mughith Al-Khalq. The Hanafi rulings about prayers were a famous topic of ridicule among the Shafi‘is. The great Imam Al-Nawawi writes in his Al-Majmu‘ that there is a difference in opinion among the Shafi‘i  scholars as to whether praying behind a Hanafi imam is valid—because the Hanafis do not believe in the necessity of intention for ablution (wudu), nor do they consider touching a woman an invalidation of ablution, in opposition to the Shafi‘i s. Al-Nawawi himself supports the majority Shafi‘i  opinion that praying behind a Hanafi who might have touched a woman (albeit his wife) is invalid (AlMajmu‘, 4/184).

Another dimension of these inter-Mathhab wars was the manipulation and exploitation of the ‘Ulama (scholars) by the Amirs (governors). Ibn Kathir relates that once a Hanbali scholar Abd Al-Ghani Al-Maqdisi was teaching the attributes of Allah at the Umayyad Mosque in a way that irritated members of other Madhahib, so the Amir of Damascus, Sarim Al-Din Barghash, held a debate among the contending parties, which failed and aggravated everyone. This ended up with the Amir banishing the Hanbali scholar and breaking the Hanbali pulpit in the Mosque, so that the midday (Dhuhr) prayer was suspended that day, and much rioting followed.

Another historian tells us that another Amir, Al-Afdal, the son of the tolerant Salahuddin, intended to expel all the Hanbalis from all the Ayyubid cities, but died before executing his plan. Here we see that even when the differences are not strictly about Fiqh (of practical matters) but also about fine points of creed, the Madhhab boundaries and rivalries could be mobilized to ‘otherize’ and stereotype a whole segment of Muslims and then commit aggression against all members of that group. Worse yet, the partisans of various Madhahib used the power of the ruthless Amirs against each other, thus compromising the unity and strength of Islam.

These few examples are the tip of an iceberg in history. To be fair and balanced, I would also point out that there are many more examples of magnanimity and harmony in our history; however, my focus here is limited to one of our history’s unfortunate aspects, which is highly significant for us today. Can we imagine the consequences if such teachings of the Madhahib—thankfully ignored by most Muslims today—were to be implemented? The Shafi‘is and Hanafis could neither marry each other, nor perform salah behind each other!

And these rulings were not promoted strictly by some ignorant extremists within these Madhahib—but, as circumstances unfolded—by some of the most respected authorities of the time! I do not mean to suggest by any means that the tremendous scholarship of these scholars should be ignored, or that any Muslim should respect them any less—but that our history has seen some “dark ages” in which even great scholars were swept up in narrow-mindedness and parochialism of the kind that if, Allah forbid, ever were to be put into practice today, would lead in no time to division and ruin of the Muslim Ummah.

Nor can we deny the existence of intolerance and narrow-mindedness—even blind imitation—among those who refuse today to follow any of the Madhahib and instead attempt to directly approach the Quran and the Sunnah: Belittling the awe-inspiring legacy of our scholars by ignoring their teachings and arguments , and instead thinking that some personal knowledge of the Quran and of the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim is sufficient for the un-mentored Muslim to override centuries of profound scholarship, this is simply delusional.

Worse yet, some of these who make such claims lack the appreciation that they too look through colored glasses, for no claim of approaching the Quran and Sunnah can be without its unspoken presumptions and biases of interpretation—such as those explicitly discussed in the Usul Al-Fiqh of the various Madhahib. And it is always harmful to be ignorant of one’s unconscious presumptions and limitations, for that is a road to simplistic self-righteousness—no better than the parochialism and chauvinism caused by the Madhhab divisions as witnessed in our history.

The Original Spirit of Islam: Critical Thinking with Discipline

The problem, in brief, is this: During the Prophet’s life, obedience to him was unquestionable, but after him, were all Muslims thrown on equal footing in understanding? Was absolute authority lost? Who then would decide what Allah really wants of us? Who was going to be the authentic interpreter of Allah’s law, the Shari’ah?

In fact, Islam requires that non-experts must ask the scholars (‘Ulama’) who have devoted themselves to profound and systematic learning. Allah Almighty says:

So ask the people of remembrance if you know not. [Surat Al-Nahl, 16:43]

Though the actual context of this verse was quite different, it conveys a commonsensical directive emphasized in other verses and authentic hadiths, and agreed upon unanimously by the ‘Ulama’. The teachings of the Prophet are more specific on this: when some people gave a religious opinion out of ignorance which resulted in their Companion’s death, the Prophet was deeply perturbed and said,

They killed him, may Allah sort them out. Why did they not ask if they did not know? The cure for the ignorant is asking… (Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah)

No doubt, every Muslim must ask those he trusts as knowledgeable and sincere, about what he or she does not know in religion. But these rather minimal and commonsensical teachings on authority still do not translate to the ominous conclusion that every Muslim must strictly and exclusively follow one of the four Madhahib.

Hand in hand with scholarly preservation of the Prophet’s way, there was a great emphasis in Islam from the outset on critical thinking and on questioning the status quo. Islam began as a revolution which started from a change in modes of thinking and behaving all the way to analyzing the social and political structures of the time—everything was evaluated, reformed, eliminated or retained based on its true merits before Allah. The Quran emphasized critical thinking, breaking away from mere custom, asking for authority and evidence for statements made in the name of Allah, critically evaluating the evidence and ensuring that they comply with the commands of Allah and His Messenger.

The Quran gives us a few instructions about asking and obeying the relevant human authorities, but hundreds about thinking for oneself and questioning those speaking in the name of Allah. In fact, the emphasis on critically evaluating human authorities is almost as much as on obeying Allah and His Messenger—as if Allah cannot be properly worshipped without questioning the human authorities that seek to speak on His behalf:

When it is said to them: ‘Follow what Allah has revealed:’ They say: ‘Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers.’ What! even if their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance? [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:170]

A similar point is made in [5:104],[ii]  [7:28],[iii]  [10:78],[iv]  [31:21],[v]  [43:22],[vi]   [43:23][vii]  and many other verses.

Yet many more verses, such as [3:51],[viii]  [6:81],[ix]  [7:33,71],[x]  [10:68],[xi]  [12:40],[xii] point out that those who went astray in the past did so because they accepted claims in religion without authority or evidence (sultan) and thus blindly followed it, even against their innate propensity to worship Allah alone.

…to be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 2



[i]  Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi explains this point in his commentary of ‘The Twenty Principles.









[x], 71



Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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