The Madhahib Question: A Call for Dialogue | Part 6

The Madhahib Question A Call for Dialogue Part 6

Each Madhhab had its own Inclinations and Strengths

One main argument for promoting the embrace of all the Madhahib is that they each have something to offer that the others do not. Historically, the Madhahib developed in different geographical areas, at the hand of various groups and social classes, and they filled in diverse voids. For example, some were strong in administration, others in trade, others in philosophy of law, yet others in Hadith, etc. The Madhahib must not remain separated and function as no more than sources of identity for select groups of Muslims—Indians define themselves as Hanafis; Africans as Malikis; Saudis as Hanbalis; Malaysians as Shafi‘is, and so on. If they are to do so, they will—as they have in history—forever continue to interact destructively rather than constructively.

In the beginning (2nd-3rd century AH), various Madhahib were born not because they all started with varying goals or methodologies or principles of jurisprudence, but because they happened to start in separate places by various individuals with varying felt needs. In other words, their differences were not systematic or intentional, but accidental. For instance,

  • The Hanafis mastered the art of analogy in a society (Iraq) very different from the Prophet’s. Analogy was questioned at first but later accepted by all Madhahib. Mutual cooperation rather than data collection and memorization was primary.
  • The Malikis preserved the tradition of the Prophet’s own city. [i]
  • The Shafi’is synthesized the two and developed principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) while making use of the newly available Hadith
  • The Hanbalis made the fullest use of

The Hanafis dominated judgeships (Qada) and tended towards codification and standardization—thus becoming distant from the source texts. This approach worked best in stable societies and favored the status quo, but not so well in turbulent or rapidly changing ones.

The Hanbalis, in contrast, rarely entered the state system and remained free critics until very late, and mostly focused on the tradition of teaching and arguing based on the original source-texts, especially Hadith.

Some Malikis, in contrast with the Hanafi standardization and Hanbali Hadith-emphasis, developed another way of dealing with changing circumstances: the science of the Ultimate Objectives (Maqasid) of the Shari‘ah.

This overall topic deserves a fuller discussion—which is beyond our scope in this article. But it would be fair to say in general that while the narrow-minded, parochial strand in every Madhhab often stuck to its guns, fortunately the all-embracing, broadminded scholars and revivalists in each Madhhab stood beyond their own boundaries and freely accepted from others.

It is inclusive tradition that is the most valuable and admirable in our history. What is needed now is to build on this tradition through a more profound, more aggressive and more constructive form of cooperation and cross-fertilization. That is necessary if we are to survive and overcome our modern challenges.

Common Concerns

“They knew better.” Often, exaggeration in obeying the great Imams is justified by arguing, “What do we know?” or even, “What do scholars of our time know compared to them?” or “Are you saying Malik and Abu Hanifah could have been wrong and you are right!!”

While this rhetoric serves as a great emotional ploy, it is misleading. Yes, it is quite possible that the great Imams got it wrong—they were great not because they were always right—several conflicting positions could not have been right at the same time anyway—but because they followed the right methodology.

Some Muslims today take their reverence of our learned Imams to a level that resembles the fundamentalist Christian attitude towards the Bible: Even though forty different authors wrote it at different times and contradicted each other in thousands of instances, it is still divine…because they trust that Allah must have inspired all these authors! Must a Mujtahid be a superman?

Another common misconception is to require superhuman qualities from the Mujtahid, and argue that since nobody alive can have this perfection, there can be no valid Ijtihad. Some will quote a saying attributed, for example, to Imam Ahmad, not because it was said by the tenth century scholar whom that person follows, but in order in further support of a convincing interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah. To learn the science and art of this interpretation, however, we must start with the classical scholars.

The Danger of ‘Shopping for Fatwas’

“Shopping for fatwas” from different scholars is a bad thing if the intention is to seek convenience rather than the truth—otherwise, consulting many scholars for the sake of better understanding an issue until one is convinced of an opinion, is not ‘shopping’—it is rather searching out solid ground.  And that is desirable. As mentioned above, it is a consensus of the Companions that one does not need to limit him/herself to the one and same scholar when asking about each of their concerns.

“[Re-] Opening the doors of Ijtihad will result in as many ‘Islams’ as there are Mujtahids

This danger is likely only if the scholarship of all the Madhahib is rejected, but what is proposed here is quite the opposite.

  • True, the Ijtihad of capable scholars may lead to unity as well as diversity of opinions. However, since we recommend that common Muslims not identify with scholarly opinions but with Islam alone (which is already true for many), this is not likely to lead to a splintering of the
  • Secondly, embracing all the Madhahib means that the process of cooperation and consultation is likely to lead to unification, not discord.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, if scholars are beholden to the methodologies and arguments of all the Madhahib, they are more likely to appreciate the other opinions, even if they disagree.

Conclusion: Embrace all Madhahib as Schools of Thought, None as Identity

Taqlid (the unquestioning following of a scholar) is necessary for the completely illiterate Muslim—even though such a state of ignorance is undesirable in itself. For one to follow a school based on accepting its evidence (Ittiba‘), is a much more desirable and healthy situation, and was the way of the society of our beloved Prophet. A follower Muslim must not draw rulings based on Hadith and Quran by himself—yet he must himself study both, and must approach the scholars to seek correct understanding, and do this with respectful criticism and feedback.

The Madhhab boundaries became strict only in a period of decline from the fourth century onward—for reasons of political, social and legal insecurity. Accordingly, Muslims today must not be divided among themselves by these historical proceedings and take them as their own modern ‘sources of identity.’ Instead, they must benefit from the essence of the Madhahib as ‘schools of thought’.

Today we live in an age where we can once again follow Islam with knowledge, be better connected with Muslims of other regions and schools of thought. And so we must together overcome old divisions and harmful attitudes. Differences are a natural part of any system of interpretation, but these differences must not divide and label us.

First and last, we must overcome the attitude of pessimism and cynicism which supposes the continuous decline of the Ummah; we must believe that we can improve upon what we have and reclaim our rightful status as leaders of humanity, pointing all towards Allah’s Din as the way intended for all mankind by all the prophets.



[i]    The Malikis preserved the tradition that a Faqih must know half a million hadiths before giving a fatwa (See N.H.M. Keller’s notes to his translation of Al-Maqasid).

While the intention to warn against hasty and shallow fatwa-making is legitimate, the uncritical use of material to prove this point leads to another extreme. First, memorizing half a million hadiths requires not only an almost superhuman memory. Furthermore, the amount of time it takes merely to read this much material a few times is more than the human lifespan. Such reports must be looked at critically or interpreted metaphorically.

It is well-known that the criticism of hadiths became standardized only in the late second century A.H., and Imams who lived before that—Abu Hanifah, Malik and even Al-Shafi’i—barely had access to even a portion of this many authenticated hadiths. Furthermore, Imam Ahmad’s own Musnad, which is the greatest in number of hadith, contains 30,000 hadiths, and due to repetition, only a third of this number can be qualified as unique hadiths. The number of hadith dealing with legal issues is even smaller.

In fact, if anything, the evolution of knowledge as well as modern technological advancements have made it much easier to retrieve and evaluate knowledge in a way that would have been impossible before. Hence, scholars are free to engage in more analysis, criticism and cooperation rather than in data collection and memorization.


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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  • Great article about the need to critically evaluate all madhabs. Scholars should not do taqlid of opinions that are unlikley correct.

    I agree that a common lay Muslim should only identify themselves as Muslims. they should not label themselves after madhabs since the layperson does not have a madhab.

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