A Question About Islamic Schools of Thought


Question:

“O you, who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.” (Qur’an 4:59)

“And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those [one] will be questioned.” (Qur’an 17:36)

Now my question is, does the above Qur’anic injunction prohibit us to adhere to a madhhab (an Islamic school of thought)? Because our mujtahid Imam differs on a lot of rulings. Since it is addressing all the believers, is it obligatory for us to investigate every aspect before practicing it? Or is it just addressing the people of knowledge? And how is it that all the opinions of the four madhahib are acceptable, even though they differ on the rulings for something as basic as salah (prayer)?

Answer:

Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) says, “Ask the people of knowledge if you don’t know.” Scholars agree that a person who does not know is obligated to ask the scholars. As in the axiom, “The scholars to the masses are like the evidences to the scholars.” What is obligatory is to ask a trusted scholar and follow what you think is closest to the truth. You are not obligated to go beyond your knowledge, but you are encouraged to ask and learn until you feel comfortable. The four madhahib are important in areas of worship, but in areas related to takhrij al-manat, tehsil al-Masalih and tahqiq of the maqasid (in short, what is best for you in the Hereafter, based on your current situation), I strongly advise you to ask contemporary scholars since “a fatwa [ruling] can change according to its time, place and the reality of the person asking.” Allah knows best.

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27 Comments

  1. Abdullah says:

    Dear Imam Webb, this is something that I am really struggling to understand, and I have no one to ask (I am in Japan). Does your article mean I have to just choose one Madhab and follow it, or can I choose a ruling from any madhab, or should I check out of the four which view is the majority (e.g. 3 of the iams have the same view, so it should be the strongest, right?…). For example right now I pray in a shafi way, but sometimes because of my situation at work (workmates and freezing cold water) I wipe my socks in wudu as per the hambali/salafi ruling. I would appreciate if you could help clear this up. JazakAllah khairan

  2. Reed says:

    “Scholars agree that a person who does not know is obligated to ask the scholars.”

    If this is a general principle, then why do so many Islamic scholars disagree with biology scholars about evolution?

    • tariq says:

      As salamu alaikum Reed,

      The ayat and principle above is related to the knowledge associated with what is necessary for the Mukallaf (morally responsible) to know in what makes is faith and acts of worship sound.

      Sorry, I don’t quite get the point of the question about evolution. Do you know the ruling concerning learning evolution? What is the ruling if one never learns about evolution?

      • Reed says:

        The point is that Muslims are expected to follow the scholars of Islam because they are people of knowledge. Why is it then, that when biologists, who are scholars in their own right and people of biological knowledge, are disregarded and disbelieved when they talk about evolution? There seems to be a double standard here.

        • tariq says:

          Reed,

          I know of at least 3 scholars that have addressed the issues of the biologist or issues related to scientism in general. Shaykh Nuh Keller, Shaykh Ramadan al-Bouti and Shaykh Saeed Fawda have addressed these issues in some way or another. I don’t think there is an issue of a double-standard. However, what I see, especially amongst the atheists, is an attempt to force scientific knowledge on people of religion whereas if we are honest the “proofs” that scientist often present are either a.) not as rigorously founded as claimed or b.) not the basis of consensus amongst scientist themselves. For instance, I have heard on more than one occasion Richard Dawkins admit that he can’t prove evolution because it has been such a slow process it is essentially unobservable. He just “believes” that it has occurred by virtue of secondary evidences.

          Personally, I don’t understand how one reconciles between the Big-Bang theory and the theory of Evolution. What then is responsible for determining created things. Is it the “power” in the bang or is it the “power” in the DNA or the “substance” from which all things evolve as the Biologist say? Do we go with Biologist or Physicist? What if other scientist purport yet another theory or find deficiencies in the existing theories? Are we to suspend our beliefs until the scientist reconcile these issues and come to a consensus? There are very serious issue that arise if we begin to go down that route as a basis for faith. Or am I misunderstanding the issues?

          So if we return to the legal value of these issues then they are not really the parlance of scholars of religion nor religious practitioners as it regards making sure their faith is sound as well as their practices as required my Allah (exalted is He).

          Look at it this way. What is required in matters of faith is certain belief in Allah (exalted is He) and the truthfulness of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) based upon a sound understanding of general proofs. Whereas issues related to the details of Allah’s attributes are considered branches which don’t necessitate heresy if one doesn’t know them in full detail or misunderstands them. It is not the basis for a person to be considered a disbeliever. Likewise for belief in secondary matters of faith that have been transmitted with proofs that don’t reach the level of tawatur (those proofs transmitted such that it would be impossible for the reporters to have agreed to lie in order to establish them as such).

          So if this is the case with regards to issues directly related to Allah (exalted is He), His Messengers and the transmitted beliefs. Then the legal value of understanding the intricacies of various sciences certainly will never be considered a contingent for what Allah (exalted is He) has required for Muslims.

          Unfortunately, scientist and scientism have a tendency to oblige human beings with more than even what Allah (exalted is He) Himself is obliging them.

          In terms of the communal responsibility of scholars to address the issues of science and scientism as mentioned there have been efforts to-date. Whether or not they are given full due by media or even by those that claim to be concerned is another issue. Still, I agree that more can be done to consolidate these efforts and for qualified individuals to address these issues in public venues would be of great service.

          I hope this is of some benefit to you and Allah (exalted is He) knows best.

        • Reed,I would like to ask you as to who told you that ‘all’ Biologists are ‘for’ evolution?
          There is absolutely no double-standards here.
          U are raising a claim on a ‘theory’ that despite so much hype is has gone no where further than being a mere hypothesis.

        • Reed says:

          @Harish

          I’m not sure what you mean by “has gone no where,” but one application of evolution has been the development of genetic algorithms. See the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_algorithm

        • Reed says:

          Tariq,

          I’m not sure that you’re responding to my point of a double standard.

          You wrote, “Are we to suspend our beliefs until the scientist reconcile these issues and come to a consensus? There are very serious issue that arise if we begin to go down that route as a basis for faith. Or am I misunderstanding the issues?”

          Perhaps there is some misunderstanding as I’m not sure what route you’re referring to as a basis for faith.

          However, consensus is a red herring. Apart from the Quran being the word of Allah and Muhammad being Allah’s messenger, is there consensus between Shia and Sunni and Mutazila (and others)? What consensus means for the average Muslim is what the group of scholars that they like (usually the group they grew up with) agree on. In the case of evolution, the overwhelming majority of scientists accept it as fact. (That doesn’t mean it’s true, but rather I’m simply referring to the notion of consensus.)

          “Richard Dawkins admit that he can’t prove evolution because it has been such a slow process it is essentially unobservable. He just “believes” that it has occurred by virtue of secondary evidences.”

          Scholars can’t prove the existence of Allah as He is “unobservable.” Muslims just “believe” through the secondary evidences of the Quran and sunnah. Should Muslims suspend their belief in Allah because they have only secondary evidences?

          You have a problem reconciling the Big Bang theory with evolution, but physicists don’t have that problem. One theory is on the origin of the material universe and the other is on how life arose out of that material and evolved. I’m not sure how to respond further as I can see no contradiction at all, and it doesn’t seem connected to the notion of a double standard.

          Again, my main point is that there is a double standard, which can be seen by applying the same logic that is being argued against biologists and evolution to Islamic scholars.

        • tariq says:

          Reed,

          I answered your question regarding the supposed double-standard pretty clearly. I said, “I don’t think there is an issue of a double-standard. However, what I see, especially amongst the atheists, is an attempt to force scientific knowledge on people of religion whereas if we are honest the “proofs” that scientist often present are either a.) not as rigorously founded as claimed or b.) not the basis of consensus amongst scientist themselves.”

          I don’t see a double-standard. Rather I see two areas of which don’t have an immediately direct relationship. However, as I mentioned, it seems that scientist want to oblige their findings on people of religion. Whereas scholars have looked into the issues of biology insofar as they concern the practical aspects of Muslim’s beliefs and practices and addressed them as such (I refer you to a response written by Shaykh Nuh Keller entitled “Islam and Evolution”).

          Where is the double-standard?

          with peace,

          tariq

        • Reed says:

          Tariq,

          Somehow, we see things differently, and I’m not sure how to go about approaching this difference. (Not that we must.) Nevertheless, thank you for mentioning Shaykh Nuh Keller’s “Islam and Evolution”. I’ve skimmed it and found it interesting and detailed, so I’ll read it more closely later.

          With peace.

        • In The Name of Allah The Most Merciful
          Dear Brother
          I Just want to mention that: and there is still another madhab in Islam that unfortunately is neglected, and it is the school of Ahlol Bait of The Prophet (peace be upon him and his ahlol bait).
          According to the madhab of ahlol bait it is enough for vudu to touch the above part of head and the surface of foot back and it is not valid to wash foot. and this is compatible with the verse of vudu in Quran.

    • Shahd says:

      There is a difference between asking scholars, and blindly following them. It is true that in Islam we are told to ask scholars – but blind following of anyone is strictly prohibited in the Qur’an, and is seen as a form of false worship.. You must think for yourself and ask for evidence. No scholar is allowed to state what is halal or haram (allowed or not allowed) without a thorough explanation of where he got this from. Go check out “fatwa corners” online where muslims send sheikhs questions about their situations.. The sheikh must always qualify what he says with evidence, and if you do not find his evidence to be convincing, then you shouldn’t blindly accept what he says. I will not be absolved of my errors on the Day of Judgement if I was to go and do a suicide bombing in my peaceful neighbourhood because Shaikh so and so said I could do so, when clearly the evidence does not support it.

      Similarly, I should not blindly follow any scientist or even group of scientists, when I can clearly see the errors of their ways. You only need Biology 100 papers to know that there is not a chance in the Universe that all of life on Earth is the sole product of blind processes, and it is therefore not sensible to believe such a thing.. Because it is highly implausible, you must seek the evidence – is it really possible that such a thing can happen? Take what you are doing this very moment, as your eyes and your visual system collect information from your surrounding, process it, and then analyze the information and give you not just an image of your world, but understanding of what you see.. From my very basic understanding of machines and the complexity of iphones or ipads or blackberries or laptops, I know that such processes that your brain does every minute is phenomenal.. To blindly accept, when science has certainly not proven, that every singly biological process has been created by blind processes.. is exactly that: blind.

      • Reed says:

        I agree that you shouldn’t accept blindly what scientists assert without a thorough explanation. But scientists are not without evidence, so I wouldn’t consider their assertions as being blind.

      • Kirana says:

        actually, i have confidence in the basic science of biology (not necessarily the ideology of the biologists themselves) and find intriguing hints of correlation with the bare words of revelation. but i am content that exactly how the two lines of knowledge reconcile may or may not be revealed to me in my lifetime, just as many other lines of revelation were not fully described by science to those before me but now known to the present generation. there’s no need to insist on the specific extrapolations of the science, nor is there need to insist on specific interpretations of revelation either – people of the past tried their best to understand with what they knew. we would be worse than they if we relied on their conclusions instead of likewise using our own best knowledge. many of us view biology with suspicion simply because we’re too beholden to specific beliefs we have held over generations, fearing that it will become invalidated. but i believe truth will only be confirmed by truth, but the *form* will also be more accurate that what we had previously, and which we should then let go. so acquire the science, sans the ideology, and let one truth complete our faith for another with complete faith (and thus without fear).

        it is astrophysics (again, just the science without the physicists’ personal ideologies) that is responsible for my yaqeen on (1) the certainty of the Last Day (2) why the description of what that will be like, has to be like that (3) what happens to “time” at the end of the expansion and therefore why everyone/thing will be “resurrected” or collected on that Day and (4) the potential for “information” to escape from the universe collapsing into physical extremes, to a next/new/adjacent universe. time ‘rolling up’, quantum field failure, it is mind-boggling – and what will make you understand what this Calamity is??

        of course, there is no need to worry if we’re not conscious and sensing at the end of the world. so what we differ with atheists on is the choice to believe that the same revelation is equally true when it says on this Day the information package that is “I” will exist whole and able to perceive, and thus will not want to remain in the collapsing universe, and will want to pass through the singularity to a different place. for my part, if there is any chance my consciousness might be rebooted and running when time rolls up into the eternal crunch, i sure hope there *is* an Almighty, Merficul Creator to ask assistance from!

        in this context the common trait in the apparently different practices of religion becomes apparent and validates the persistent notion of not being attached to “dunya”. it seems to be about training the self to be able to leave this world at will. because on a Day of total confusion one may not be able to will it successfully without prior training, just like military forces are drilled relentlessly so that in the stress and confusion of battle, hopefully they will make all the correct actions.

  3. Mullah Wazir says:

    Also Allah says ‘Remind as reminding can help the believers’ A nice article jazakallah khair

  4. ayisha says:

    Assalaamu Alaikum Imam Webb,

    What is brainwash and how powerful is it to change a person’s personality and beliefs. The reason i asked is that my daughter went thru this,with a kafir and now i m slowly bringing her back to her original senses.

    Any advises regarding the above will be much appreciated.

    Jazak Allah Kharain

    Wasalaam
    Sister Ayisha

  5. Yasmin says:

    Very interesting question and great answer,Mashallah!

  6. Chitown says:

    Abdullah:

    Don’t look at Medhabs as some sort of a religious obligation. Medhabs are legal schools which is better understood as a legal methodology in the extrapolation of rulings. Every single school of thought had their own unique way of coming up with answers. Correct me if I’m wrong Imam Suhaib, I may be over simplifying this, but the Malikis would look towards the people of Madinah and their accounts as a means to help them understand what the correct ruling as as they were the people whose ancestors had direct contact with the Prophet (S).

    We have these schools because they utilize legitimate means of extracting rulings for our deen, contrary to what is happening today where we see people just opening up the Quran, or reading one hadith from Sahih Bukhari and making a fatwa without any contextual understanding of the Quran or hadith in the first place.

    The point I’m trying to make here is this: its not a good idea to try to look at the primary sources of Islamic legislation (Quran and Sunnah) without any kind of proper education. At the same time, its not a good idea to look a book that says “The fiqh of Imam As Shafii (RA)” and make that our go to guide with regards to fiqh. Instead, what we as commoners should do is find a scholar who has a contemporary understanding of the society that we live in and consult them. This is extremely important because there are scholars who, may Allah reward them and sorry to say, have no clue how society is run. They also have no organic understanding of Shariah, the main point being that it changes based on time and place. Instead, these scholars do nothing more than memorize a bunch of rulings/information of the past, a deliver these rulings to struggling individuals who can’t follow these rulings. They also speak about things which bear absolutely no relevance to the stuff that we are going through. I’m from America, and I don’t know about Japan, but in America, we have a lot of that. And its sucks because people are leaving Islam because of it. No practical solutions whatsoever. An extremely sad state of affairs.

    I can go on and on about this but I think you get the point. One thing to warn you about are those people who “think” they know the deen, but really, the only religious education they got was from wikipedia and google.

    With regards to your work issue, I can’t really comment as I am not a scholar, so I really don’t know.

  7. Mohammad Awol says:

    As Salaamu Alaykum,

    Interesting, question and answer. I’ve been adhering to a madhab for quite some time now and haven’t had any issues. Before , I wasn’t following a madhab and I was making mistakes in salah, wudu and didn’t understand the rights, in marriage divorce etc. because I was listening to those that didn’t follow a madhab or were just following their cultural traditions.However, I’ve noticed a lack of respect or in many cases disdain for madhabs brought on by ignorance or this Westernized thought Of independent thinking (I can be a scholar and interpret the hadiths on my own in english. As stated earlier I’ve had no issues in regards to living the deen when I started following a madhab only issue I’ve had are with those that don’t and come off as anti-madhab.
    as salaamu alaykum

  8. Abdullah says:

    Thank you Chitown for your reply. Also I just want want to make clear I do not believe in just reading Quran and Hadith and coming up with my own rulings. I only follow rulings of the 4 madhab or established salafi scholoars rulings. So in my case it is not thinking I can do ijtihad, I just want to know if all 4 schools are correct, then shouldn’t I be allowed to follow any of their rulings. Of cousre I know I should not mix and match within a particular situation like taking several parts of different rulings to make a new whole ruling. But if I take a particular imam’s complete ruling for a particular situation, can I then choose any one of the 4 that is most suitible for my time and place? JazakAllah khair

  9. Ellen Keim says:

    I am a convert of two years and don’t really know Arabic. The only access I have to scholars is on the Internet and frankly I don’t know enough about the different schools to know which is which. So I end up reading on my own and trying to come up with my own understanding through prayer and study. I guess I am acting as my own scholar. There are a few sites I trust, such as yours, but it’s hard to get advice on daily and sometimes trivial issues from a web site.

    I find that the most helpful guides are knowing the basic tenets of Islam and my own common sense and intellectual understanding.

    For example: My husband is not a Muslim but he is fully supportive of my deen. We have been married for ten years and he is a model husband who treats me with complete respect and deep affection. I am 60 years old and wouldn’t remarry even if I was able to. I’ve been told by some other Muslims that I have to divorce my husband because he is not a Muslim. That just doesn’t seem right on so many levels (not the least of which is financial–I could not live on my income alone). I’ve prayed about it and feel at peace about staying married to this man. But sometimes I wonder if I’m making up my own rules.

    Another concern I have is that there are so many rules it is impossible to know them all. I worry that I’m doing many things wrong, but again, I just try to stick to what I do know and to pray that Allah will guide me to the knowledge that I need.

    Do you have any advice for how to handle unintended ignorance and mitigating circumstances such as mine?

    Salaam,
    Ellen

    • Pro says:

      ASA Sr. Ellen,

      As a laymen like yourself, I am trying to gain drops of knowledge out of this vast field. I think the main things to focus on are to 1) first make a sincere intention for Allah to guide you to what will be beneficial to you on your own unique personal path to Him, iA, 2) make efforts to learn the proper rules for fard ayn (individual obligations). This can be hard, but try your best (that is all Allah asks us for). There are many online sites that offer lectures on topics such as these (like lamppost productions, sunnipath, seekersguidance, and more) especially when there is a sheikh drought in your area, 3) learn and focus on manners and purification of the heart. Inshallah, just making intention will open doors and not making excuse (just taking 15 min a day to learn something new will increase you many fold). I hope this was helpful.

      Wasalaam

  10. Jennifer says:

    Assalaamu alaykum,
    It is a good idea to follow a madhhab for wudu, salah, fasting and zakat as these are pillars of Islam and salah in particular carries so much weight regarding our deeds. We want to make sure that the way we make wudu and the way we pray is sound and acceptable. However, we come into situations where strictly following one madhhab might be difficult, as in Br. Abdullah’s situation. In those cases we can take a dispensation from another madhhab, but we have to be careful with that also. If you’re in a place where you don’t have access to suitably knowledgable scholars, alhamdulillah these days we have the resources of Imam Suhaib’s website, Sunnipath/Qibla and Seeker’s Guidance mashaAllah that have question and answer archives and where we can ask new questions as well. May Allah make it easy for us to follow this deen as best as we can. Ameen.

  11. Hayaah says:

    Salamalaykum…

    I don’t remember where it was that I read this, but it stuck with me and made sense: The four schools of thought, all branch back to the same root – out last prophet, Muhammad (pbuh). Going back to the biography of his (pbuh’s) life, and a hadith (that I don’t at this point remember per se); A man came to the prophet (pbuh) and said that he heard so and so reading the quran in a way different from what he had heard the prophet recite. So he told the person that he was reciting it incorrectly/improperly. So the prophet (pbuh) asked him who it was that he had heard, and on being told responded by saying – that what he (the man this man had heard) was reciting was right, as well as what this man himself had learnt from him. This meant that both ways were correct. So what I took from this read (which I again repeat that I cannot remember where I read it first but it made SO much sense to me), was that all 4 schools of thoughts go back to the same prophet (pbuh), therefore perhaps all four ways being right. What’s essential (again based off another hadith of the prophet [pbuh]) is consistency in the act: A man came asking the prophet (pbuh)- what is the best ibadah… the prophet (pbuh) replied – one that is consistent. Thus, in my opinion (humbly acknowledging the fact that I am a simple practicing muslima)- I see no wrong in practicing something that is from one school of thought, so long as I don’t keep mixing it up with another and make it confusing for others around us/generations to follow, and our intentions are pure and secure with The Lord (swt). Also, the four schools of thoughts did come from the prophet’s (pbuh) companions, all of whom (RA) learnt from him (pbuh). If he could practice the madh’ab in all 4 ways, them why not his ummah?

    Allah (swt) Know’s Best. May He (swt) forever guide us towards His Light and Shade – Ameen!

  12. Abu Abul Rahman says:

    but in areas related to takhrij al-manat, tehsil al-Masalih and tahqiq of the maqasid (in short, what is best for you in the Hereafter, based on your current situation), I strongly advise you to ask contemporary scholars since “a fatwa [ruling] can change according to its time, place and the reality of the person asking.” Allah knows best.

    Brother Suhaib Webb: Can you please write those terms in arabic bc i just want to have a better understanding of it? BarakAllahu feekum

  13. Marcus Ray says:

    Salaam Alekom dear brother Suhaib,
    Jazaak Allah kheer for your answer to the above question.

    I would like to ask a couple of questions and really appreciate your time and advice. I am a victim of information overload from the internet and wish i could get a flux capacator so i can travel back in time and study the old fashioned way:)
    i am very confused with all of the different schools of thought and i need to channel my efforts in to one form of study.

    My questions are:

    1) I have many hanafi scholars around me who i hope to start learning hanafi fiqh with. if i find an opinion in another madhab that i feel more comfortable with, is that permissible? i beleive this is called “talfeeq”?

    for example i understand that hanafis believe that bleeding breaks wudu. but malakis do not. i feel more comfortable with the malaki opinion not out of ease but from what i have read on it.

    2) Would you advise one to study Sayed Sabiqs “fiqh us-sunna”?

    3) I know that you studied malaki fiqh. would you advise me to study malaki also living in the west? I am in the uk and most people seem to follow hanafi. but i really like many of the concepts in malaki fiqh like maslaha and mafsada and the muwatta of imam malik.

    thank you so much for your help and for the service you provide the ummah. I really love all of your talks and articles and admire your knowledge and efforts.

    I look forward to meeting you one day.

    Salam aleko
    Marcus

    • Brother Muslim says:

      As Salamu Alaikum brothers and sisters.

      Thought I just add to some points everyone is making. If anything I said is good its from Allah and Please ask for my Forgiveness if I have said anything wrong.

      “Ask the people of knowledge if you don’t know.”
      The key word to the above statement is ASK not Follow.

      So who should we follow?

      Say (O Muhammad S.A.W to mankind): “If you (really) love Allâh then follow me” {surah 3 ayat 31}

      Not all the knowledge is with 1 person. So if we must ask we should also seek the evidence in regards to it based on the Quran and Sunnah. Otherwise who are we following?

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