Towards A Solution: Embracing All the Madhahib, All at Once
The question is not whether the four Madhahib, the traditions that preserve the thought of the great scholars and Imams of Islam, are relevant today: Of course, they are—in fact they are indispensable.
The question is whether any Muslim (especially scholars) today can afford to narrowly confine him- or herself to one Mathhab alone, rejecting the majority of our great tradition!
Instead, the approach that is becoming the attitude of most significant Mujtahid scholars and Muslim thinkers of today is that we must embrace them all as ours—not because they are all equally correct in all their contradictory opinions, but because they are all valid in their methodology and invaluable in insight. Their contributions and shortcomings, their correct opinions and the mistaken ones, are all needed to help us find our way through the sacred texts of the Quran and the Sunnah in a challenging world.
In brief, the following are the benefits which we seek from such an all-embracing approach:
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- To avoid religious discord in the Ummah
- To benefit from the entire Islamic tradition, rather that only one part of it
- To make progress in our understanding of the Shari’ah at both the scholarly and common levels
- To avoid elitism and disconnectedness of the scholars from the common Muslims and thus to better approximate the Prophet’s society in which even common people could criticize and give feedback to the religious authorities.
How can this approach achieve these goals?
On the scholarly level,
(i) By embracing all the Madhahib as ‘schools of Islamic legal thought’ that have emerged in our past, not as separate religious systems that have become ‘sources of identity’ for Muslims
(ii) By recognizing through a study of history that all schools developed their own inclinations and methods under certain historical circumstances—and since these historical accidents are not part of Allah’s universal message, then there is no reason why Muslims today should be bound by any one of them and remain divided on that basis, rather than learn from them all
(iii) By drawing upon the Usul (principles) as well as Furu‘ (Fiqhi conclusions) of all the schools, through a critical and comparative study and synthesis
(iv) There will always be differences among scholars, but there is no reason why these differences should become canonized and serve as a means to divide Muslims forever. New differences will emerge, but the old ones should also vanish
(v) In brief, by emphasizing that the gates of Ijtihad can never be closed. Yet no new Ijtihad can ever ignore the opinions and especially the consensus of the scholars of the past without justification.
On the follower level,
(vi) By challenging the old Muqallid-Mujtahid dichotomy, and recognizing the increasing ‘middle class’ of ‘reasoned followers’ as a healthy sign
(vii) By recognizing that the Muqallids (followers) who cannot understand evidence in fact have no Madhhab, because they simply follow the positions of their scholars, whatever may be the Madhhab or inclinations of their scholar.
(viii) Followers—whether Muqallids who follow blindly, or, those who follow based on scholarly evidence— must not become the ‘territories’ of scholars.
In fact, followers need not follow only one scholar in all matters. Furthermore, scholars must both educate their followers and be open to their feedback and criticism.
(ix) Followers must never ignore scholars or consider them irrelevant.
(x) Followers should identify themselves only as ‘Muslims,’ not by any of the Madhahib labels, and even if they happen to follow one or another Madhhab for basic matters such as worship, they ought to recognize that this is only a matter of convention and convenience, not part of their faith or identity.
Discussed in Parts 5 and 6 in more detail are some of the points mentioned above, and some caveats that we must keep in mind for such an approach to bring the desired results.
The challenges and problems of today are too big and complex to be solved within the resources of any one Madhhab. The Ummah needs the minds and hearts of all the scholars to come together. I call on us all not to be factions like those condemned in the Quran,
…those who split up their religion, and become sects, each party rejoicing in that which is with itself! [Surat Al-Rum, 30:32]
While students of knowledge may be trained within one Madhhab, this must be understood as a pedagogical (educational) convenience or a matter of order. But no one can be considered properly equipped to solve modern problems if he or she does not know well all the Madhahib, their principles, their differences, their relative strengths and weaknesses.[i]
The precise way to achieve such a synthesis at the level of fundamental principles is an involved discussion and beyond the scope of the present article; it suffices to say that some prominent contemporary scholars and investigators have already adopted approaches that are promising for such a synthesis.
…to be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 5
[i] Codification (taqnin) came about in the form of compilations such as Majallat Al-Ahkam Al-‘Adliyyah by the Ottomans and Fatawa Al-Amgiriyyah by the Moguls in India.