Between Muqallids (followers) and  Mujtahids (scholars): Putting back the ‘middle class’

Fortunately, modern advancements and the ready availability of books, and now the Internet, have once again made possible what was never possible in the Middle Ages of Islam: the rise of an ‘Islamic middle class.’

In the society that the Messenger of Allah established, knowledge was given to all and sundry in study circles at the mosques. Thus was created the original ‘middle class’ of Muslims—those who are learned in Islam without being full-time scholars. In case of technical questions, people would consult the distinguished Companions after the Prophet.

After the end of the golden age of Ijtihad in the fourth century AH, it became customary to divide people into two categories: Muqallids (who could do nothing but follow) and Mujtahids (who gave verdicts). But this dichotomy is unhealthy and undesirable, because followers who cannot reason or question are good neither for Islam nor for scholarly integrity.

One of the tragedies of our history has been the lack of such a middle class. Just as in any economically prosperous society where the middle class must be a majority, so is the case in knowledge. Societies are rarely run by full-time scholars; and if this middle class of reasoned followers is not there, then it will be, as it has been, run by the secular or ignorant elements who will ignore, exploit or misuse religion and the scholars—rather than respecting them and seeking their guidance.

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Three points are noteworthy about this ‘middle class’ of ‘reasoned followers’ among the Muslims today:

(i)  There is an increasing ‘middle class’ of followers —who are capable of understanding evidence, though they cannot give rulings—and this is a very healthy sign, even though it might appear chaotic on the surface and unsettling to some.

(ii) This class of reasoned followers provides the necessary feedback and criticism to the scholars so that they don’t become a self-serving class, as has often happened in history.

(iii) This class makes it possible for the scholars of religion to interact with, and learn from, Muslim followers who are experts in other fields, such as economy, history, science, social sciences, etc., because in the complex world today, no one can master all fields. For a scholar to give correct rulings about any field, a profound understanding of it is required; hence the need for collaboration.

Consensus of the Companions: A Commoner May Ask any Scholar

The great scholar Muhammad Al-Amin Al-Shinqiti, who comes from a Mauritanian family of great scholarly tradition, says that the permissible Taqlid (‘the unquestioning following’) about which no scholar disagrees is “the Taqlid by a commoner towards a scholar.” Such a commoner or Muqallid, however, is defined as “one who has no knowledge (of Fiqh) whatsoever.” Quoting from the principles of Maliki Fiqh, he goes on to say:

According to the majority of scholars, it is permissible for the commoner (‘Ammi, a layman or a Muqallid) to seek a fatwa from various scholars on various issues, because it is the unanimous consensus of the Companions of the Prophet that a commoner may ask any scholar regardless of the latter’s Madhhab), and every problem has its own independent solution.

 He goes on to quote Al-Qarafi who said,

Unanimous consensus (Ijma’) has been established that whoever is (or becomes) a Muslim, he may follow any of the scholars without any hesitation, and further consensus of the Companions is that if one asked Abu Bakr and ‘Umar and followed them, the same person could ask Abu Hurairah, Mu’adh ibn Jabal and others, and may act upon their sayings without any problem. And if someone claims to reject these two points of consensus, the burden of proof is upon him.

Al-Shinqiti goes on to say,

Taqlid (by scholars) of one specific Imam is an innovation of the fourth century, and whoever claims otherwise, (we challenge him) to point out to us one single man from the first three centuries who followed another man’s Madhhab, and he (the challenged) will never be able to find such an example, because it simply did not happen.” (Al-Qawl Al-Sadid, 9,17)

Guarding the Guardians

The Quran’s censure of the priestly class, the clergy, who caused the deviation and downfall of the people of the Book— the Jews and the Christians—was so strong that there remained no possibility of allowing such a priesthood in Islam. One verse says,

O ye who believe!  There are indeed many among the rabbis (ahbar) and monks (ruhban), who in falsehood devour the wealth of men and hinder (them) from the way of Allah. [Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:34]

In other words, the Muslims were being warned against the potential corruption of ahbar, the doctors of law, and the ruhban, the worshippers, monks or mystics. Another verse criticizes the followers,

They (the people of the Book) took their ahbar (jurists) and ruhban (monks) to be their lords besides Allah… [Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:31]

When a Companion Ady ibn Hatim, previously a Christian, objected that Christians did not actually worship their religious leaders,

the Prophet said, “Did they not make permissible what Allah prohibited and you considered it permissible, and did they not prohibit upon you what Allah had made permissible, and you (followed them and) made it permissible?” I said, “Yes, indeed.” He said, “That is ‘worshipping’ them.” (Ahmad and Tirmidhi)

Umar ibn Al-Khattab is reported to have said,

Three things will destroy the Din: the error of the scholar, arguments of hypocrites using the Quran, and misguided leaders.” (Ibn Abd Al-Barr, Jami’ Bayan Al-‘Ilm)

The Prophet trained his Companions to be critical and independent in judgment. The Companions—men and women, young and old—understood this spirit of independent thinking and questioning towards the authorities in Islam.

Most significant is the story of the woman related in the Quran who argued with the Prophet with regard to her husband, who had treated her unjustly by appealing to a pagan, pre-Islamic practice, Dhihar (Surat Al-Mujadalah, 58:2). The Prophet at first gave her no definite answer and told her to fear Allah. But she remained unsatisfied, perhaps because she knew Allah had not sent a ruling on the matter yet—and finally Allah honored her by sending down revelation that prohibited that kind of inconclusive divorce.

In the same way, another ordinary woman corrected ‘Umar when, as Caliph, he suggested placing a limit on dowry, with the result that ‘Umar immediately acquiesced and corrected himself. When ‘Umar asked a Muslim gathering what they would do if he went astray as their leader, one man had no qualms in saying that they would ‘straighten’ him.

To sum up: the Quran and the Sunnah teach us that only an attitude of critical but respectful feedback can keep the scholars and authorities from being corrupted. The guardians, in other words, must themselves be guarded. No doubt, specialization and respect for knowledge and authority are indispensable in Islam, using reason as well as revelation, for arriving at the truth. This makes it an obligation upon Muslims to heed the advice of the knowledgeable.

However, there is a caveat, emphasized by none other than Allah Almighty Himself: Blind and uncritical conformity cut at the very root of religion and are unequivocally condemned in the Quran. The Prophet as well as the Rightly Guided Caliphs instilled in the early Muslims the spirit of independent thinking and the questioning of authorities. This spirit made them successful not only in the Hereafter, but in this world, too. It made them a model community whose example we must follow (in its essence) if we are to be successful as Muslims.

Classical Fiqh Developed in Some Areas More than Others

Advocates of the ‘one-Madhhab’ or the exclusivist approach, who oppose embracing all the Madhahib, find it convenient to push back based on isolated examples from the Fiqh of worship, for two reasons:

  • In the special (and non-ideal) circumstances in which the Madhahib were developed, personal matters that did not require political or administrative experience got the lion’s share of attention; hence, all the Madhahib have over the centuries painstakingly discussed even the minor details of worship and consolidated their positions on them.
  • Because ritual worship is the most important and timeless aspect of Fiqh, changes in technology, economy, science and politics do not require rulings on points of worship to be reopened for discussion in today’s Ummah.

Consider how differences in worship are the easiest issue to deal with:  At the outset, people follow the Madhhab of their native culture (where they were born or converted). But when Muslims from the various Madhahib interact, they either learn from each other and choose to practice what they feel is more correct, or they agree to disagree on personal matters and follow their own scholars. Or, they may agree collectively to follow a trusted local scholar/leadership on matters of collective worship. They must never stoop to the level of thinking that they cannot worship together because of detailed Fiqhi differences.

The real problems of today, however, for which we need the intellectual power of all the Madhahib and more, are in the fields of the Mu‘amalat (dealings, transactions, relationships), the economy, and siyasa (administration, politics, international relations). In these areas, the traditional teachings of the Madhahib might be found either underdeveloped or outdated.

Today, we find that most critical matters of Fiqh (whether interest is prohibited, whether killing non-combatants is justified, whether abortion or stem-cell research is allowed, etc.) have to be discussed using the intellectual resources of all the Madhahib. A solution is never justified simply because it is said by a tenth century scholar that a particular Muslim spokesman follows. Rather, an answer must be based on 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.

…to be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 6

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.

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