What is a Madhab? Why is it necessary to follow one?
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller, 1995
"The slogans we hear today about 'following the Qur'an and sunna instead of following the madhhabs' are wide of the mark...In reality it is a great leap backward, a call to abandon centuries of detailed, case-by-case Islamic scholarship in finding and spelling out the commands of the Qur'an and sunna," argues Nuh Ha Mim Keller.
The word madhhab is derived from an Arabic word meaning "to go" or "to take as a way", and refers to a mujtahid's choice in regard to a number of interpretive possibilities in deriving the rule of Allah from the primary texts of the Qur'an and hadith on a particular question. In a larger ...view middle of the document...
The third type of knowledge is that of the specific understanding of particular divine commands and prohibitions that make up the shari'a. Here, because of both the nature and the sheer number of the Qur'an and hadith texts involved, people differ in the scholarly capacity to understand and deduce rulings from them. But all of us have been commanded to live them in our lives, in obedience to Allah, and so Muslims are of two types, those who can do this by themselves, and they are the mujtahid Imams; and those who must do so by means of another, that is, by following a mujtahid Imam, in accordance with Allah's word in Surat al-Nahl,
" Ask those who recall, if you know not " (Qur'an 16:43), and in Surat al-Nisa, " If they had referred it to the Messenger and to those of authority among them, then those of them whose task it is to find it out would have known the matter " (Qur'an 4:83), in which the phrase those of them whose task it is to find it out, expresses the words "alladhina yastanbitunahu minhum", referring to those possessing the capacity to draw inferences directly from the evidence, which is called in Arabic istinbat. These and other verses and hadiths oblige the believer who is not at the level of istinbat or directly deriving rulings from the Qur'an and hadith to ask and follow someone in such rulings who is at this level. It is not difficult to see why Allah has obliged us to ask experts, for if each of us were personally responsible for evaluating all the primary texts relating to each question, a lifetime of study would hardly be enough for it, and one would either have to give up earning a living or give up ones din, which is why Allah says in surat al-Tawba, in the context of jihad:
" Not all of the believers should go to fight. Of every section of them, why does not one part alone go forth, that the rest may gain knowledge of the religion and admonish their people when they return, that perhaps they may take warning " (Qur'an 9:122).
The slogans we hear today about "following the Qur'an and sunna instead of following the madhhabs" are wide of the mark, for everyone agrees that we must follow the Qur'an and the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). The point is that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is no longer alive to personally teach us, and everything we have from him, whether the hadith or the Qur'an, has been conveyed to us through Islamic scholars. So it is not a question of whether or not to take our din from scholars, but rather, from which scholars. And this is the reason we have madhhabs in Islam: because the excellence and superiority of the scholarship of the mujtahid Imams--together with the traditional scholars who followed in each of their schools and evaluated and upgraded their work after them--have met the test of scholarly investigation and won the confidence of thinking and practicing Muslims for all the centuries of Islamic greatness. The reason why madhhabs exist, the...