How to Achieve Unity and Progress of the Ummah: The Challenge Today

How are we to achieve harmony and unity among the Muslims on the one hand and a deeper, truer understanding of the Shari’ah on the other? To resolve this difficulty is not a mental luxury—it is a matter of our survival as the Muslim Ummah.  One Muslim thinker, Malik Bennabi, summarized the last few centuries of Muslim experience in the world rather well:

The Muslim Ummah had [to] become colonist’s prey before it could be colonized.

How to stop being divided and backward, and how to avoid any future (and ongoing) attempts at colonization of the Ummah, that is the most urgent question of our time. And one important piece of that solution is how Muslims of different opinions and inclinations are going to relate to each other.

Three competing proposals of how to approach and overcome such divisions have been offered.

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  • One possibility is to approach the Quran and the Sunnah ‘directly,’ meaning apart from the guidance of any Madhahib (schools of thought). Such proponents cite the example of the first few generations of the pious predecessors as a sufficient guide. This is what people did before the development of the Madhahib—and some continued to do even afterwards).
  • Another is to follow the four Madhahib strictly, as was done in the middle periods of Islam (4th -13th centuries, Hijri). When the painful history mentioned above is pointed out to these proponents of the individual Madhhab, they might add that now we must learn to tolerate each other, knowing that all the four solutions to all the problems are equally correct.Some advocates of this approach go to the extent of saying that no scholar can ever be a Mujtahid or an absolute Mujtahid after the classical age. In other words, “The gates of Ijtihad have been closed.”Though these two approaches differ on the surface, they share reverence for, and trust in, the classical scholars (those of the first three centuries). They differ in whether one looks at the ‘middle period’ (from the fourth century onward) as a necessary and inevitable progression of our history and hence binding upon us, or whether one wishes to go back to the early period directly by ignoring the middle period.
  • There is a third tendency, not directly addressed in this series, of modernism, which rejects the authority of the entire tradition and the ‘burden’ of respecting even the early scholars, and wishes to reinterpret the Quran and Sunnah—sometimes even the Sunnah is rejected—in order to make Islam fit for survival in its own way.

The first two options each have something valuable, but each tells only half the story, such that their proposals will not become feasible unless they listen to each other. Hence, this series is an earnest call for dialog and synergy, an honest and sincere dialog among all those who care about the Din of Allah and the Muslim Ummah above all else.

And if such a dialog fails to happen on a large scale, I fear that the third of these options, that of rejecting all of the Islamic tradition, will become more and more probable. Or, equally dreadful, is the possibility that one more serious fault line will continue to further divide an already fragmented Ummah.

In this series, my goal is to flesh out the arguments put forth by various contenders with respect to the Madhhab issue, to show their strengths and limits, and to call for a dialog and synthesis among them. The slogans of ‘no-Madhhab’ and ‘one Madhhab’ have both been taken to extremes; we must learn to evaluate the worth of these slogans in their proper context, and to recognize the concerns, the polemics and the politics that always surround them. At the very least, in order to satisfy the minimal Islamic requirement of passing a judgment, we must first hear out both sides as sincerely as we can.

Later in this series, I will also put forth a middle view that acknowledges and builds on the strengths of both sides of the divide—a view that I believe is espoused by a large number of Muslim scholars and thinkers today for good reasons, even though it is not often articulated. That view is that the Muslims must embrace all the Madhahib, all at once, not just one Madhhab exclusively.

This needs to happen at two levels.

  • On the level of scholars or Mujtahids, the Madhahib should be conceived of as ‘schools of thought,’ not as bases of various identities. This approach means that the resources and geniuses of all the schools be available to contemporary Muslim scholars—who must learn from each one of them but be bound by none. Our drastically transformed world requires profound, organized and collective efforts of Ijtihad by the scholars.
  • On the level of the followers, this approach recommends that ordinary Muslims not identify with any of the Madhahib even when following scholars from one of them. Many scholars have in the past pointed out that a Muqallid (a follower who does not ask for evidence) actually does not have a Madhhab—it is only the scholar that he or she follows who has a Madhhab. [i]The majority of the scholars agree that Muqallids must follow the scholars they trust. It further requires that we distinguish between types of followers: those who are not capable of even understanding the evidence provided by the scholars for their recommendations (Muqallid), and those who are capable of understanding the basis for various recommendations (Muttabi: ‘reasoned followers’). [ii]But being a Muqallid is an undesirable situation, and most educated Muslims today can and must try to become ‘reasoned followers.’ An increasing number of (Islamically) educated Muslims already fall in this category. (Explanation of each of these points follows in Part 4, ‘Towards a Solution’).

This middle approach, I submit, is most conducive to dialog as well as to genuinely Islamic progress; it respects the Madhhab tradition without being limited by it, it reveres the great scholars of our past without idolizing them, and it pays fullest attention to the Quran and the Sunnah without ignoring the possibility of differences or making the faulty assumption that everyone is qualified to do Ijtihad.

First, a brief recap of the relevant history is in order to be found next time, insha’Allah, in Part 3


[i] The only notable exception to the general agreement that ‘an illiterate person may follow a trusted scholar’ is Imam Ibn Hazm (d. 456), a great original scholar and Mujtahid, no doubt, in his own right. He says,

Taqlid is prohibited for everyone, whether a slave, a commoner, a virgin girl in her quarter, a shepherd in the mountains—as it is prohibited for a learned scholar. And Ijtihad in seeking the commandment of God and His Messenger—in whatever the Din requires a person to do—this is incumbent upon all. Whoever blindly imitates (qallada) in any of these matters has disobeyed Allah and sinned. (Al-Ihkam fi Usul Al-Ahkam).

However, practically speaking, this is an isolated opinion which goes against the majority of the ‘Ulama’ of all inclinations, and will no doubt result in great difficultly and chaos if followed.

[ii] One of the factors correlated to the rise of Taqlid and stagnation was decline in the standards of education.

Ibn Khaldun, one of the most brilliant and original minds in history, observed in his Al-Muqaddimah that the increase in (unoriginal and uncritical) writings within any field generally make learning more difficult; confusing terminology proliferates; the aesthetic aspect of the language is ignored; and the student becomes forced to spend most of his life memorizing it and trying to reproduce it.

He gives the example of Al-Mudawwanah in the Maliki Madhhab:

Someone compiled a collection of Malik’s opinions which ran into many volumes; then its interpretations were written by many a scholar; then books were written separating various schools within the Madhhab; then compendiums were written since the original works were too large to handle; then explanations of compendiums were compiled because the compendiums were too terse and difficult to understand. A lifetime is needed to study any one of these. (Al-Muqaddimah)

We might add that since most of the rulings contained in these huge volumes are either abstract, theoretical, or outdated, much of the time of a traditional Fiqh student would be spent in memorizing these, and little time would be left for original, critical reflection, or for profound reflection on the Quran and the Sunnah.

Originally posted 2017-04-03 08:00:27.

Dr Ovamir Anjum

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.


  • Muhammad Shakir Hussain

    April 3, 2017 - 11:22 am

    The article writeen by Mr.Ovmir Anjum is good enough to enable to understand the Madhabi dialogues and thinking
    up to 50% only. In order to understand the difference between Madhab and Deen, one should go back to the basics
    of Islamic literature in deep. The first and fore most that we have to reflect back to the Quranic verseon the subject of ” Madhab ” where Allah Subhanau Wa taala address the mankind not to divide the religion by making the deen in to various sect. That ends the matter. To support this we have Prophetic teachings where we have to refer back to understand what damages by practicing Madhabi thought. The damage is none other than throwing out of the steadfastness of our faith aand beleif. Those muslims who are bent upon arguing or discussing about Madhab or Taqlid should know what Allah Subahanau Wa taala and the Prophet Sollelahu Wasallam needs us to follow. After assimilating the quranic Verses and the Prophetic teachings in depth, they can converse with the learned scholors
    for further discussion.

    Muhammad Shakir Hussain

  • Firas

    April 3, 2017 - 11:37 am

    This article fundamentally does not understand what a madhab entails. It accepts Salafi misunderstandings of madhab as a divisive identity as a base assumption and does nothing to understand how madhabs view themselves beyond the couple anecdotes mentioned by the author. Furthermore, it entirely neglects to discuss that differences among the madhahib are based on actual differences on usuli principles, not ijtihad.

    I’ve literally seen better discussions of how madhabs work in high school papers.

  • Ovamir Anjum

    April 3, 2017 - 12:28 pm

    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps you can recommend some further readings here? It certainly is a very complex and divisive issue and bringing it down to a simple language without too many academic or historical references always entails certain oversimplifications. As someone who authored this piece over a decade ago, I do not see myself as defending every statement, but as a historian of Islamic intellectual schools, I find such claims as madhhab difference are based on usul as being equally simplistic — no one in the academic discipline of history accepts this without serious qualification. Rather, madhhabs developed in fits and starts over centuries, through a complex mix of particular furu’i ijtihads in various urban centers as well as usul accumulating over time, subject to a number of social and political contingencies. Usul in most cases were often backprojected rather than initially present. Recent scholarship, furthermore, has increasingly shown the marginal role usul played in the actual history of Islamic law, both in the beginning and especially after the 9th/15th century. (I personally see the revival of usul as a useful movement in the modern period). The consolidation of madhhabs took place only in 4th through 6th century and always remained choppy and incomplete except when certain political regimes have facilitated the process (like Baybars in 7thC Cairo or the Ottomans or the Maliki Almoravids in North Africa). The reversal and questioning of the taqlid paradigm also remained alive throughout, and its loosening becomes notable starting as early as the ninth/fifteenth century. Sometimes, madhhabs became identities larger than Islam for groups that literally went to war for them, and at other times, in more intellectually vibrant times and pluralist regions, merely intellectual schools. Finally, major institutions of Muslim learning such as Al Azhar have for nearly a century come to the position that the madhhab of the commoner is that of the mufti he is consulting, which is tantamount to saying that madhhabs are not principles of communal and sectarian organization but intellectual schools.
    A call for dialog and openness is a call to humility rather than pedantic ignorance masquerading as traditional scholarship (which it often does), to push against both fetishization of “sola scriptura” as well as even more fragile fiction of stable madhhab orthodoxies since times immemorial.

    • Firas

      April 3, 2017 - 1:48 pm

      On the contrary, most recent academic work has led towards the idea that the madhabs developed from the time of their eponymous founders based on certain usuli principles. Ahmed El Shamsy’s “The Canonization of Islamic Law” traces the development of the Shafi’i school and ties it intricately with certain epistemological discussions that al-Shafi’i was engaged in (particularly in his relationship with his teacher, Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani). Theories of Hadith’s epistemological value are seen clearly in both of al-Shafi’i’s books, “Kitab al-Umm” and “al-Risala”. The only way that one can claim those clearly laid out legal theories to not be original to the founder of the school is if they were to argue that those books were not in fact authored by al-Shafi’i, a claim that has been attempted but not taken seriously by most scholars in the field. The notion that the usul of the Shafi’i school is a back-projection to al-Shafi’i and actually developed later is same the old claim of Orientalists like Joseph Schacht that have thoroughly been refuted in recent decades.

      Umar Abd-Allah’s “Malik in Medina” operates similarly to El Shamsy’s book in that he identifies key theoretical principles that Malik operated on that ended up forming the basis of his madhab. There is also a recent edition of Muhammad al-Shaybani’s “al-Asl” by a Turkish scholar, Boynukalın, wherein he examines the ahkam al-Shaybani lists in his work and traces them to usuli principles of the Hanafi school.

  • Ovamir Anjum

    April 3, 2017 - 2:06 pm

    You are confusing madhhabs as communal identities with madhhabs as intellectual doctrines. Besides, Imam Shafii’s doctrine is an exception not the rule among the madhahib. Shafii usul, furthermore, underwent important transformation at the hands of Nishapurians like Juwayni onward. In the fifth century a major Shafii like al-Mawardi could write that a qadi’s appointment with the condition to follow one madhhab is invalid. Two centuries later, such conditions become the norm.
    You completely misunderstand my argument: I fully agree with El-Shamsy’s argument, who is a dear friend, and generally the authenticity of Muwatta and Shafi’i’s works, but they do not establish madhhabs in the way al-Subkis were to understand them in 7-8 centuries–that late medieval understanding is what romanticists want to see as timeless, and what I am pushing against.

  • Muhammad Shakir Hussain

    April 4, 2017 - 3:35 am

    The whole discussion about the Madhhabi dialogue should be stopped when you come across the verses of Quran and the authentic haadis. The four schools of thoguhts ( Hanafi, Shafai, Hambali, and Maliki ) are nothing to do with Haadis. They can not change the actual texts Haadis because they are not Sahabis. They are experts in Islamic jurisprudence only. These four schools of thoughts have to be depend souly on Quran and Haadis. I dont understand why so much hue and cry is being done about the veiws. These four use to clarify the doubts of our ummah who ever comes to them by reflecting to Quran and haadis. That ends the matter. We better keep our mouths shut and read quran and Haadis in order to improve our knowledge more and more. My dear friends and brothers , we have to answer three questions after entering our graves. 1.Maan Rabbuka 2.Man deenuka and 3. Man Rasooluka ?
    Lets all of us from all the nook and corner of the universe to toil to be steadfast to Quran and Haadis in order to receive the glad tidings after the three questions that has to be answered.

    May Allah Subahanau Wa taala bless all of us, the mercy to adhere to Quran and sunnah. Other than this there is nothing else in Islam !!!

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