Islamic Studies

Lighthouse for the Seeker: Advice for the Contemporary Student from Dr.`Ali Gom'a

The contemporary student in the West is faced with a number of challenges that assail him like cold dark waves from multiple directions. Since he is new to his craft, he struggles as the waves mercilessly beat and pound his small boat as he struggles for shore. The lighthouse for such difficulties is the senior scholars of the Ummah. Those who, while many aspirants were lost to the cold dark tide, have gone through these same channels with, in some cases, even smaller boats, more murderous storms and ended up safe.

The subject of giving fatwa is one that has witnessed a number of heated and difficult discussions. Recently I was blessed to sit and discuss some of these points with one of the great lighthouses for students of knowledge, Dr. `Ali Gom’a.

Dr. `Ali: Asalamu alaykum Suhaib! Come in.

Suhaib: Wa alaykum al-salam, ya Mawlana, it is great to see you.

Suhaib: May I please ask you something about ifta in the West?

Dr. `Ali: Sure.

Suhaib: When I answer people’s questions and prepare rulings, I find that simply quoting from the books of my madhab is not going to cut it.

Dr. `Ali: Indeed.

Suhaib: I started to reflect on what the sheikhs taught me here at Dar al-Ifta. I remember my teacher Dr. Muhammad Wissam telling me, “I have 91 madhab’s at my disposal and I use them to achieve what’s best for the solicitor’s dunya and akhirah!”

Dr. `Ali: Yes.

Suhaib: But when I do that people accuse me of unorthodoxy. So what should I do?

Dr. `Ali: We look at what all the scholars have brought, apply it to our context and look to achieve what will benefit the person in this life and the next.

I am a Shaf’i trained scholar, but on many issues I have given fatwa based on the Maliki opinion because it achieved what would best facilitate things for people and benefit them in this life and the next. This religion is an easy religion.

Suhaib: Quoting Qur’an, “Allah intends ease for you.”

Dr. `Ali: Yes.

Suhaib: What do I tell those who charge me with upholding a wrong understanding when following this method I have learned here?

Dr. `Ali: Pauses, looks up and says, “Tell them they don’t understand!”

May Allah bless Dr. Ali and all of my teachers. I’m forever indebted to them.



About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.

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  • Salam aleikum,

    A very touching and illustrative introduction to a very direct, to the point conversation. Grrrrrrrrreeaaat!! 🙂

    P.S. Can you possibly touch on the 91 madhabs remark?

  • JAK sheikh Suhaib for this post, and may Allah belss Mawlana. I believe his answer is the most sutiable in such a chaotic world, where the ignorant dares to accuse the knowledgable of ignorance!!
    Allow me to tell you something. While some people may accuse you (scholars) of upholding the wrong understanding, still others learn from you, and look up to you for your knowledge and patience . May Allah grant you more patience and knowledge.

  • Mashallah mashallah mashallah Imam Suhaib you are lucky to get one on one time with Sheikh Ali! He truly is one of the best scholars out there today mashallah. This issue is such an important issue nowadays because of the lack of religious education among the Muslim masses worldwide.

    In Egypt most people don’t even know what madhab al-Azhar follows (for the most part). I personally didn’t even know until very recently. The madhaheb are just such a non-issue here. Many people when faced with a fiqh question will just ask the imam at the local masjid or phone into a religious talk show, and will not really be concerned with how the person giving the fatwa obtained this fatwa, what madhab s(he) based it on or if there is actually a difference of opinion on that issue. Elhamdulellah now we have the Dar al-Iftaa hotline so at least that’s a trustworthy source of knowledge. But in general there is still a strong sense of religious passivity.

    On the other hand, most of the American-Muslim blogs I follow are so rife with concern about each person’s madhab it borders on fanaticism! Not only do they talk about the madhaheb of fiqh, but they go into long never-ending discussions about aqida, slamming the other person’s aqida if they follow a different school! If I asked the average person on the streets of Cairo if they’re an Ash’ari or a Maturidi they would literally no idea what I’m talking about.

    These are two extremes, opposite ends of the spectrum. So how do we reach that middle ground between religious passivity and religious partisanship?? What can some of the younger Sheikhs that are connected with the youth (such as yourself) do to ameliorate this problem? And how should the average layMuslim (such as myself) react when faced with passivity or partisanship, and how can we avoid falling into this trap ourselves?

  • I remember reading somewhere that at one time there were 300 madhaahib! I wonder if Sh Suhaib can expand on this….

  • Al-Hamdu lillah, I was blessed to listen to many of his khutbah’s and a few lessons on Usool al-Fiqh and fatwa sessions. In comparison with many other scholars I sat with I can say that this man is the real deal. Our Sh. Suhaib is taking from the top of the crop. It’s easy to be a literalist and say haram after reading a hadith and its apparent meaning, but it takes a true scholar to gather the texts and look into their possible meanings and find facilitation for the Ummah.

  • AS

    Akhi Shaikh Suhaib barik-Allah fika wa yah-deka. It may be important hence forward for people to understand that those who train under the Ulema of al-Azhar ash-Sharif possess a methodology in dealing with Islamic sciences, in general, and Fiqh (madhabs, etc.), in particular. The voice of the Ulema of al-Azhar remains silent except for what is heard of the occasional controversial legal responsum (fataawa). In addition, throughout the past years I have seen people online attribute to the Ulema of al Azhar the appellation of “rationalists” (in a derogatory sense). Our community has a sense of the methodologies of the blessed scholars of Sham, Mauratania, Saudia, Yemen and Deoband but honestly al Azhar remains a mystery to many. Many are unaware that al Azhar is still the center of Islamic learning despite all other factors. Likewise, many fail to know that quite a significant number of the Ulema of the Muslim world are from al Azhar or studied under scholars from al Azhar. And because Azhar is a center of learning for Sunnis it is important that people understand the methodologies of al Azhar.

    Wa bi-LLahi at Tawfiq

    your little brother and companion

  • Sh. Suhaib, maybe an alternative explanation other than saying, “they don’t understand,” is explaining that giving fatawa based on a specific madhab made a lot of sense when 1) Muslims lived in localized culture where the town or the city were legally and culturally adoptive of a specific madhab and their religious identities were composed, at least in the sense of facilitating mu’amalat (and ibadat), of partiality to a single madhhab and 2) the Muslim world had a legal infrastructure and system that managed ikhtilaf according to the madhab paradigm and when the parties were of different madhhab there was a state madhab (usually Hanafi in the case of the Ottomans).

    But modernity has certainly affected Muslim life and the transfer of information and knowledge has eroded to a great extent the religious identities based on a single madhab, now we can find opinions of not only the four madhahib but of even the lesser known scholars (and even their gharib opinions) in a click of a button. Secondly, modernity has destroyed the legal structures and institutions and their governance. So we have people who can research a variety of different, vying opinions, and all the while we don’t have the type of institutions to bring some organization to the application of law.

    So the question is on what basis does one give a fatwa for people (the majority of which have no meaningful adherence to a madhhab), and in absence of the type of legal structures which maintain that order? It seems to me that making takhyir (choice between countervailing opinions) based on what is easy for people may be a solution for the interim, at the same time it does little to establish a credible system that maintains a certain objectivity (resembling the classical system) in dispensing justice and being genuine to the texts of wahi and usul. Till a new framework and system is devised, I would expect the charge of unorthodoxy to subsist.

    • Usman:

      Asalamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh:

      Point well taken. However, in order for a charge of unorthodoxy to hold water, the following need to be answered:

      1. Its definition- I find the word rather ambiguous and used, in many cases, in the wrong context by the wrong people. Perhaps you could provide a definition that would establish why such an accusation will subsist? As our scholars have taught us, without a definition, there is no application.

      2. Modernity aside, we need to look at the turath and see if this method, the method of al-Azhar and a great majority of modern jurists, is linked to any authentic historical expression of the law. Off the top of my head I can think of Malik’s opinion regarding Nikah al-Shighar, his reading of the Basmalah in prayer, placing one’s hands on the chests during prayer, and the Shafi’s doing a backspin on the issue of touching a non-Maraham, on accident, during T’awaf.

      I can recall, at least in the Maliki madhab, the 3rd century work ‘Uyun al-Adilah, Ibn Rushd’s Bidayatu al-Mujtahid and in recent times Sh. Sadiq al-Ghiryani’s 4 volume work. Of course you have the entire edifice of this thought going back to the Companions, ‘Umar bin Abdul Aziz, when he ordered that zakat al-fitir be taken with money, and some of the great early jurists and this continued until the age of hyper taqlid. So if. in fact, such a method’s identity can be found amongst the salaf and the early great jurists, taking from other opinions and ijtihad when there is no “nas” or Ijm’a Sahih, would they be charged with unorthodoxy as well?
      The most detailed book I’ve read on this is ‘Ilam al-Muwaq’in ‘an Rab al-‘Alamin of Ibn al-Qayim and, of course, al-Shattibi. Even Deobandis must admit that, Shah Wali u Allah held this contention. Sh. Salman al-Nadawi told me, “Towards the end of his life, Shah Wali u Allah wrote, “I cannot address the problems of India with one madhab.”

      3. The definition put forward to challenge such an approach, is it agreed upon yujm’a ‘alah? If not, then it has no legal bearing, nor can it be used to declare one as unorthodox. In fact, using it as such would be, in very simple words, unorthodox since it fails to respect the process for which such things are determined.

      So, I would counter that before an charge as such can be made, the following need to be addressed:

      1. Is there a definition of fatwa that describes such a method as unorthodox?
      2. If so, how does it apply to the methods used by al-Azhar and many of the recent legal giants?
      3. If such a definition exists, is it agreed upon to the extent that it is given legal authority?
      4. Who determines the above?

      As al-Ghazzali noted in al-Mustaspha, “The Shari’ah came to achieve what is beneficial [in this life and the next] for human beings.” These words were echoed by Ibn Abi al-Salam, al-Gharafi, al-Maqdasi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim and alluded to by Ibn ‘Abbas (ra).


      • aleykum salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakathu,

        You’re right, it’s firstly an issue of terminology (as almost every discussion is), unorthodoxy can be better defined in our context of this discussion when we first determine what it means to “facilitate matters for the people.” As bro. Atif mentions below this may be interpreted by many (usually those who are ready to lauch the accusation of unorthodoxy), to picking and choosing an opinion from the variety of opinions that exist merely to satisfy the convenience of the mustafti (solicitor of legal ruling). Morover, even this procedure can quickly degenerate into giving a ruling simply based on satisfying desires (at least in the first case the range of opinions were the products of an objective, hermeneutic method of ijtihad).

        I do not doubt that there is a character of utility in the law, the law must facilitate life, and adherence to a single madhab for its sake will certainly present problems in addressing the complexities of life now and in the future (but this problem is more of an issue of dogmatism and partiality to a madhab).

        As for the charge of unorthodoxy, I’m certainly not trying to justify it, I just realized that if one is going to pick and choose a ruling to facilitate things for people, and if that approach is questioned (which I think is not unreasonable), the answer “they don’t understand,” does very little (maybe even harms) any progress towards arriving at understanding and consensus.

        In fact, this issue may not even primarily be about whether picking and choosing an opinion has historical precedence among the great legists and jurists (I’m in another discussion with some bros. about the permissibility of following the rukhas, and the conditions that great jurists like Izza ad-din ibn abd as-salam, al-Qarafi, ash-Shatibi, Ibn Taymiyya had imposed – certainly it wasn’t a free for all for them in which the sole benefit of people derived the ruling). Rather I think this issue has to do with configuration of these legal devices and the larger context of power. To facilitate life could very well mean preserving a status quo that is problematic in so many ways to other aspects of the worldview of Islam. Now, historically speaking the jurists may have had few reservations with facilitating life for people by picking and choosing rulings because the order, politically, socially, and even economically was informed by other aspects of Islam, aside juridical.

        I just don’t think making talfiq/takhyir with the objective of facilitating life for people is an approach in the context of the times we live in will even at the very end really facilitate life for people, it appears to me it’s making things more and more complex in the long-term. There is a saying attributed to Sufyan ath-thawri (don’t know the authenticity), in which he says, “min akhada bitawadiru al-ulama kharaja min al Islam (he who collects and adopts the strange opinions of scholars has left Islam). So facilitating life for people certainly can’t be the only guiding criterion, and that’s why I mentioned a new framework needs to be developed in which all these parts come together in consonance.

        barakAllahu feek for taking the time out in your busy schedule and responding, btw if you see Osman al-Azhari, give him a big hug from me.


        • Asalamu alaykum,

          Ultimately it would come down to scholarship and training. My experience here has taught me that simply reading books and theorizing about Shar’iah related issues are very dangerous. I would add to that, that it was only when I was given the responsibility of writing and working on answers by my teachers, dealing with the people and interacting with a number of different scholars on a day to day basis, that I began to appreciate and respect the position of today’s majority. So the question comes down to trust and scholarship.

          I’m not trying to shut any of you down. But I would encourage many to have sabar. Some of the questions being asked are learned over time and experience, not by reading or surfing the net.


          It was actually Ibn Abdul Barr who stated the quote you mentioned above.

          However, Al-Thawri said something that might prove beneficial:

          “Anyone can make things difficult, but it is the faqih who facilitates.”

          As for Maslahah, then in our context we are talking about the two agreed upon definitions, and for myself of course, I give consideration to the third since it is part of my school’s [Malikis} training. As for the fourth, that which is rejected by Shari’ah, then I would assume here that we are on the same page.

          As for the solicitor of a fatwa, then it is his right to follow or reject any opinion as major books of Usol clearly mention, unlike the sentence of a Qadi, that the opinion of a mufti is not binding. Throughout our history we’ve had a great breath of scholarship that covered the sphere of ideas and opinions: the ease of Ibn Abbas and the strictness of Ibn Umar, the Maqasid of al-Shattibi and the textualisim of Ibn Hazim, the salafiyah of Ibn Taymiyyah and the tasawwuf of al-Ghazzali.

          As ‘Umar bin Abdul ‘Aziz stated, “What would scare me is an absolute uniformity amongst the companions. For is such happened, practicing the religion would be difficult for others” and “Their differences are a mercy, and their agreements are a definitive.”

          So in the end, it is about you the questioner and his right to follow who he feels most comfortable with. This is not following the nuffs, as this is a right granted by Islam and exemplified by the salaf.

          ‘Aiesha said, “If the Prophet [sa] had the choice between two issues, he would take the easier one as long as there was no sin.”

          In a sound hadith we find the Prophet (sa) saying, “Command the people to do what they can handle.”

          Ibn Sirin, the great student of the Companions and who a book about dreams is falsely attributed, said, “I have never seen a people easier then the Companions of the Prophet.” This is mentioned by al-Daraqutni in al-Insaf and its chain is questionable.

          Regarding talfiq, then we must admit that it is divided into two kinds: acceptable and rejected and, that as an actual study, the concept was born sometime during the late 9th-10th century A.H. Inshallah, we are working on a few research projects that will hopefully serve to answer many of your questions. In addition, once we open our school on the West Coast, brothers and sisters will be able to come, study and engage the Usol in a proper fashion, coupled with practical application.


  • AA,

    Since we’re on the issue of answering people’s questions, I wanted to know if it is indeed true that according to the Maliki Madhab (or at least an opinion) is that we Muslims are allowed to eat non thabeeha meat from our local super market. If that is true, could you (Imam Suhaib) please provide the reference and daleel. My parents are non-Muslim and everytime I’m invited over to eat, I decline due to my preconceived understanding that non-thabeeha meat is haram to partake in. Secondly, I was informed that according to the Malikis, one would need to be present while a christian or Jew is slaughtering the animal. Furthermore, the argument against eating non thabeeha meat is due to the fact that we live in a secular society wherein religious conviction nor faith are preconditions for working in a slaughterhouse (e.g an atheist could possibly be butchering food). Therefore the whole meat of the Ahlul Kitab issue wouldn’t be applicable and would be haram to eat.

    Thanks Imam in advance for any insight.

  • Salam

    Very interesting discussion. I have heard Hasan Al Basri quoted as saying something like ‘We look for the rukhsa (facilitation), while other scholars look for the difficult option’. This may be a total misquote from me, Inshallah someone can correct me. But there’s no doubt, as I look back on the 20 odd years of learning about halal and haram, that most scholars fall into these two camps: trying to find it easy for the people, and trying to find the harshest opinion. And I have personally found the best scholars to be those who do NOT make things difficult, but by showing how easy Islam is, MOTIVATE oneself to actually want to become closer to Allah SWT. I mean it sounds almost paradoxical, but the more ‘liberal’ you opinion becomes, the more ‘conservative’ your behaviour can become! Always taking the harshest opinion scares people into submission, not motivate them.

    And at the end of the day, we need to look at how the Prophet(SAW) did this. From my limited understanding of seerah, he would use both motivation and fear, softness and harshness, but the motivation and softness was much greater. The best example I have of this is the man who asked the Prophet(SAW) permission to commit zina, and his response. And of course, the ayat in the Quran about it being from the mercy of Allah that the Prophet(SAW) is not harsh. Again, someone please correct me if I am wrong.

  • Assalamu’alaykum Sh. Suhaib,
    I hope you are well, rahimakaAllah.
    My question is, how can an average person differentiate between the scholar who is facilitating matters for the people, and the one who gives lax fatwas (just because it is easier and not the correct opinion)?
    Or should the person even be concerned?
    Let’s say that a person of knowledge gives fatwa saying that a conventional Riba mortgage is halal in the West (because it’s just too difficult to get halal financing). Should the average person just accept it, even if the fatwa troubles his soul?


  • As-salaamualaykum Imam Suhaib,

    I fully agree that there is great benefit in utilizing all of the madhahib. One is not enough for a society to function. With that said, where does “having a particular madhab” come into play? What is the benefit of having a madhab? Is it to develop a foundation for one’s practice and help one achieve a certain level of taqwa?

  • If I could throw my two cents in here: I think all Muslims need to keep in mind that the madhaahib are a means to an end; there are not an ends in themselves. So utilizing more than one of them is very much in line with the Spirit of Islam. Allah sent us Islam, as Dr.`Ali Gom’a mentioned, as way to make things easier for us — not for us to form imaginary factions, divisions or clubs based on one’s preferred approach to the deen.

    Sh. Ibn Bayyah also stated in “Sacred Laws in Secular Lands,” that he felt it was impossible for Muslims to function in the West with only one madh-hab. So that’s two juggernauts (top scholars) echoing the same call to ease — away from the tendency to dogmatically adhere to “the madh-hab methodology.”

    Again, may Allah bless you, Imam Suhaib.

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