There is a fine line between following (taqleed تقليد) a juristic school of thought (madhab مذهب) or an established scholar of Islamic Jurisprudence (faqih فقيه) and fanaticism/blind partisanship (ta`ssub تعصب) to a scholar or school of thought. The former is something that the scholars of Islam have recommended for the common people who aren’t able to research and interpret the legal implications of our scripture. There is undoubtedly a well-founded practice that, in order to learn the basic parameters of worship, it is easiest to learn the rules from one of our four established juristic schools of thought. That being said, it doesn’t mean that if you come upon a contrary verse of the Qur’an, sound Hadith, or other qualified scholarly analogy that you can’t break from your original school’s or scholar’s position to follow it.*
*This last sentence is not the issue of this article, but I felt the need to mention it as it pertains to this article. Insha’Allah we will go into detail on this in the near future.
On the other hand, there are many Muslims who have become big sources of turmoil to the Muslim world as a result of their fanatical obedience to their school of thought. They judge or discredit others and even deny many established, well-founded opinions that are clearly based in our scripture and the rich tradition of law that stems from it.
There is a difference between a common Muslim (مسلم) and a true believer (mu’min مؤمن). A true believer is not just trying to get by with the basic rules of law. He or she is trying to grow in knowledge, sincerity, and devotion. From the perfection of sincerity to Allah, is that a Muslim dedicates his or herself to knowing the truth, especially when it is related to our religion. In order to do this, one must free himself or herself from blindly following their school of thought without question or research. Many believers mistakenly follow people to the point where they believe that whatever they know from their teacher or madhab is the ultimate truth which must be followed despite any other opinion. They often do this unaware of the basis of the opinion they follow or the other opinions/texts that exist on the subject.
The first thing that a sincere believer should do while seeking knowledge is to be free from blindly following opinions to the extent that they disregard other opinions. We have to be willing to entertain the idea that maybe there is a better or more correct opinion on the subject. We have to be neutral, seeking only to follow Allah and His messenger ﷺ as represented by our scripture to the best of our ability. There are some who are attached by birth or other association to a scholar or school of thought and see that the whole of Islam is what they say and anyone who disagrees is wrong. In many cases, people reject opinions that don’t agree with what they follow, while in other cases they reject an opinion they haven’t heard before. This fanaticism and partisanship is a sign of ignorance and/or conceit contrary to the tradition of sincerity and dedication to seeking the truth.
May the pleasure of Allah be upon Imam al-Shafi’i who said, “By Allah, it doesn’t matter to me if the truth is found on my tongue or my opposition in a fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) debate.” In another statement he said, “My opinion is generally correct yet it is possible that I am mistaken; while my opposition’s opinion is generally mistaken, yet it is possible that he could be right.” What was important to Imam al-Shafi’i is that the truth be heard one way or another. He recognizes that no one is infallible except the prophets (peace be upon them). His teacher Imam Malik, with whom he often differed, said when people leaned toward this fanaticism in the Prophet’s ﷺ mosque, “You can follow or reject the statement of anyone except the man in this grave (as he pointed to the Prophet’s ﷺ grave).” This is the spirit of the sincere believer with regards to knowledge of his religion.
Imam Hasan al-Banna said, with deep Qur’anic insight blessed by Allah, “It is an obligation upon every Muslim who doesn’t have the training in textual analysis to follow a scholar from those Imams who have been trained in Islamic jurisprudence. That being said, it is most desirable for the Muslim layman to strive to the best of his or her ability to know and understand the textual proofs by which he worships. All Muslims should accept all guidance which is based in the Qur’an and Sunnah as long as they trust the knowledge of the one who is advising them. Muslims should all be seeking to increase their level of knowledge.”1
Imam al-Banna was attempting to bring back the spirituality that Muslims have lost. The majority of Muslims are being taught to follow people rather than nurturing a relationship with our religious texts which were meant for all of us. It got so bad that for centuries even trained scholars were taught that exerting their abilities (ijtihad اجتهاد) in challenging their teachers is somehow blameworthy or not traditional. The fact of the matter is that we have four schools of thought and many internal differences within them because of the richness of our texts and the scholarly tradition that was applied to them by the early generations.
Some are taught, or should I say oppressed, in many parts of the Muslim world, to believe that the contents of this article are misleading and that we must all follow our school of thought or local scholar without exception and it is not our responsibility nor is it our duty to follow Islam according to the Qur’an and Sunnah. So let’s see what Allah has to say about this dispute.
“O you who have believed, obey Allah, obey His Messenger ﷺ and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger ﷺ, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in results.” (Qur’an, 4:59)
Let’s take the first part of this verse: “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger.” First of all, we should notice that in this verse and in many other places Allah calls out to all believers to obey Him and His messenger. This can only be done by all Muslims, scholars and laymen, learning the ayahs (verses) and hadiths (reports of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Nowhere in the Qur’an does Allah call out to “the knowledgeable” or “the scholars” and tell them to obey Allah and the messenger. The next part of the ayah is quite clear in support of this article’s contention. It says “and those in authority among you.” It doesn’t say “and obey those in authority among you.” Our scholars of tafsir (the science of interpretation and contextualization of the Qu’ran) comment on the reason Allah said, “obey Allah and obey the Messenger,” yet did not precede “those in authority among you” with the command to obey. The majority of them say that “those in authority among us” refers to the scholars of Islamic Law and that we must only obey them if they are in accordance with the obedience of Allah and His messenger ﷺ, i.e. the Qur’an and Sunnah.
I pray Allah guide His nation of believers to the knowledge and understanding of His message through the revelation He revealed and preserved for us.
- Usool al-‘Ishreen al-Asl al-Sabi’ ↩