This is a decisive issue in some communities, and the subject of many heated debates online. After taking the Code Evolved class from AlMaghrib and doing some other research, I wanted to share some of my personal thoughts and experiences on this issue. I'm not going to get into the Halal/Haram/Makrooh/Mustahab/Wajib/Bid'ah of the issue, but rather take a look at how this issue affects our communities in the West. I hope inshā'Allāh that this will give us something to think about, and a way to affect positive change in our communities no matter what someone's stance is on the issue. This is a long read, but I hope you can read through it, as I think this is quite different from the usual discussions on this issue. So without further ado…
My Personal Journey: The Beginning
This should give the background from which I am approaching this issue, and I will try to offer my conclusions at the end.
When I first began to really make an attempt at studying the deen, I knew from childhood that I was Hanafi. However, this never made sense to me. In fact I distinctly remember as a child in Sunday School being taught how to pray, and how some people follow 4 different schools of thought so they pray differently. As a 10 year old this completely shook my world. I thought Islam was 'one' way, and the 'one' truth, so how could there be 4 schools of thought all of a sudden? I only knew of Sunni and Shia, but one was right and one was wrong. Now all of a sudden there are 4 that differ but are all correct?
So when I began studying, I would read all kinds of stuff online, but I would filter what was correct by trying to find what was Hanafi. However, I quickly found myself incredulous at some of the fatwas being given by this particular Hanafi scholar/website. It was around this time that my dear brother Abu Bakr recommended a book to me on how to perform ṣalāh by Shaykh al-Albaanee. I took a quick glance at it, and noticed some huge differences in how I was taught to pray so I discarded it for the time being, attributing it to his being “Shafi'ee” (as my parents had branded him).
Finally I got around to reading it and expanding my horizons, and happened upon the 'Salafi' approach to Fiqh. Now all of a sudden I was being told to evaluate the evidences and follow what was correct. Finally, objectivity! This is certainly what I had been looking for. This was sufficient to fling me into the first span of knowledge that Sufyaan ibn Uyaynah described as a person being arrogant because now they think they know everything.
I also came to the opinion that Madhhabs now were unneeded in our times. Because we had muhadditheen who had gone through all the works and graded all the ahadeeth for us, there was no longer a need for differences since most of them were attributable to people using weak evidences. Now that we knew which were the authentic evidences, everyone should be following the same path. This was further reinforced by reading other works showing the confusion of madhhabs, especially for new Muslims. Plus, how could someone claim its necessary to follow a madhhab when none of the Sahabah did? It must obviously be a bid'ah. It was also at this time that one of my friends told me quite frankly to give up my “pursuit of becoming a salafi mujtahid.” I was apalled that someone could say such a thing about people following the evidences!
My Personal Journey: Doubts in What I was Certain About
Slowly over time, I began reading other works and viewpoints. I would read things from the extreme Sufi crowd who claimed Taqleed was absolutely necessary. This turned me off big time. So I began trying to look for the real stance on Taqleed, and what I came to learn was called 'Ittiba (which is what I thought I was doing).
I was struggling with a few things at this time though. I started noticing that the scholars I was following who I thought held all the correct opinions due to their relying only on authentic hadeeth had some really strange opinions on some issues, departing from the majority of scholars. I also noticed these scholars themselves differing over some issues, which I thought should not happen. I began to see some of the benefits of following a madhhab as it kept the average Muslim from picking and choosing fatwas based on their desires and opinions.
Finally I read something by Shaykh ibn Uthaymeen that again rocked my world. In all my confusion I found something full of light and wisdom on this issue. I cannot find the article now, but it said essentially that there was nothing wrong with studying a madhhab and gave some general guidelines of when taqleed is made. I felt like I finally found the middle path, but other than this short article, I could not find anything else really espousing this. So the issue went on the backburner, and I became apathetic to the entire debate.
My Personal Journey: Turning Point
There was a discussion about an issue on the AlMaghrib forums, and being fairly certain of the answer, I posted it. Shaykh Muḥammad alShareef replied and said not to answer fatwa questions, and that even though the answer may have been correct, the methodology at arrving at it was wrong, and therefore in the long term the answer was wrong.
He was polite, but I felt like it was a smack down. I was a bit hard headed and simply did not get it. If my answer was right, then wasn't that all that mattered? I said to myself, he knows what he is talking about so leave it alone and maybe soon I will understand it inshā'Allāh.
I kept this in the back of my mind until I heard 2 lectures that radically changed my outlook on this entire issue. They finally gave me what I had been looking for. They were balanced. They kept with what was in general agreement of the mainstream Muslims, and not to either extreme. They made sense, and had evidences to back up what they said.
In a lecture by Shaykh Ali al-Timimi, he was discussing this issue. He gave an analogy that struck a chord with me. He said for the student of fiqh it is best that he studies a particular madhhab. It is like a doctor for example, who has many paths to choose from. The ultimate goal is to heal the patient, but some may take different approaches such as the traditional approach, or maybe an osteopathic approach. The doctor will go through school, study his approach, and become an expert at it. This develops his foundation in studying medicine. Once he has reached this level of expertise, it gives him the ability to now objectively look at the conclusions of the other approaches, and evaluate them to arrive at what he feels is correct. Basically, he's a doctor mujtahid.
The student then, should learn a madhhab, learn its usool, and establish for himself a foundation in Fiqh that has been established from centuries of scholarship. Once he is an expert with a good foundation, he now starts looking at other approaches, etc.
As for the lay person (and I don't remember if this was from him or another person), then he follows a scholar whom he trusts. Not everyone is a student of fiqh so in this case a person should follow his imām that he sees to be knowledgable regardless of what madhhab they follow. This made sense to me, as for my fatwa questions I would often go to an imām that at least apparently looked to me like they were making a concerted effort to follow the Qurʾān and Sunnah, and I could see this in their actions and manners. I would trust the answers they gave me even if I couldn't research them, but I never asked them which madhhab they followed beforehand.
Then I heard something from Shaykh AbdulBary that finally explained to me what Muḥammad alShareef had said. He gave the example of a doctor (I guess it's a universal thing). He said if a lay person starts reading medical books, then goes to a hospital and performs a surgery, even if it is successful, he would be liable to be sued because he practiced without a license. There is not a single person who would accept that action from him, because he is not properly qualified despite the fact that the surgery may have been successful.
On the other hand, a person who is a proper doctor, and qualified, he may make a mistake, but it would be accepted from him because at least his 'approach' was valid. He was a qualified person, but he slipped up, and people would accept this from him.
The scholars are the same way. This is the explanation of the hadith that if the scholar makes an incorrect judgment he gets one reward, and if correct he gets two. This is because his approach is valid, and he has studied before judging. Only one answer is technically correct, but they both used a valid method of arriving at their answer.
What I Learned about the Evolution of Fiqh
This point was further reinforced when Shaykh Yaser Birjas addressed the question of which madhhab is correct. Obviously, 4 differing opinions cannot be correct. However, the approaches of all of them are valid. This small distinction helped me to understand a lot of the issues surrounding this subject.
I also gained a new appreciation of our scholars and the efforts they made to preserve our deen. My stomach was turning inside thinking about how naive I used to be to think that we could somehow discard over a 1000 years of scholarship and rely on a few select modern opinions.
Learning the history of this issue is extremely important. Knowing for example, how differing occurred at the time of the Sahabah, the establishment of the Hijaza and Iraqi schools of thought in the first centuries of Islam, and the reasons of differing that occurred amongst some of the scholars.
One important issue for me was identifying what I feel are the two extremes on this issue. The first being the fanatical blind following of a madhhab, and the other being to discard them altogether and consider them bid'ah.
He also gave a methodology for studying fiqh. A person starts out by studying the opinions of the madhhab, then learning the evidences, then studying differences within the madhhab, then finally progressing to comparative fiqh. Unfortunately in the past, I felt that everyone should just jump to stage 4 and follow 'the truth.' It is true, the more a person learns, the more they realize they don't know anything.
So What Does this Mean for Today's Communities in the West?
I look around now at the communities I have seen and experienced, and it makes me sad. You see both sides of the same coin at each other's throats on this issue. You see the crowd claiming to be “traditional” in their approach bashing anyone who does not 'make taqleed of one of the 4 madhhabs' when they themselves probably don't even understand the rulings of their own madhhab to begin with. Then you have the extreme salafi crowd bashing them for making taqleed, while they themselves are making taqleed of 2-3 modern scholars while just fooling themselves by thinking they are following the evidences.
I have found that most people who debate this issue, have never studied anything about Fiqh to begin with. This is what is the root of the problems. The best analogy I can think of is what Shaykh Yaser Birjas said regarding ibn Hazm's opinion on music being halal. If they really want to follow him on this opinion, then they should study his rulings, and follow his opinion in other matters too! This is something on both sides, where there is a lack of education and understanding. People will refuse to learn or even listen to someone because they are a different madhhab, or don't “openly proclaim” that they make taqleed of a madhhab.
If we look at the example of our ulemma though, we find that even the 4 imams, were students of each other. Their students studied with people from different schools, but they always had the utmost respect and humility in dealing with each other.
All in all, this is an issue that we need to learn about, because that is the only way we will have understanding for one another. This cannot continue to be an issue that divides our communities and pits us against one another, especially in the times we live in. No one is asked about their madhhab before being kicked off a plane or thrown in Guantanamo.
Lastly, and inshā'Allāh I hope that Allāh(swt) facilitates this for me, is that we should make a concerted effor to try to study fiqh, and build up our foundations.
External Resources on this Issue