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Shaykh Salman al-Oadah | The Four Imams: Leaders of a Third Way


If we look back on the lives of the four imams – Abū Hanifah, Mālik b. Anas, al-Shāfi`ī, and Ahmad b. Hanbal – we find that they were extremely tolerant people. They were respectful of their contemporaries, predecessors and the earlier generations of Muslims, whether they agreed with their views or not. Indeed, they followed the example of their predecessors in being tolerant of differences.

Allah says: “And those who came (into the faith) after them say: Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who were before us in the faith, and place not in our hearts any rancour toward those who believe. Our Lord! You are full of kindness, most merciful.” [Sūrah al-Hashr: 10]

The four imams — the leading scholars who founded the four canonical schools of Islamic Law — never allowed past disagreements to cause them to disparage or raise suspicions about the people of an earlier generation who held divergent views. Likewise, they never called for an inquest of their contemporaries who disagreed with them and they never got involved in their affairs except in a positive way.

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The four imams certainly disagreed with one another and with other jurists of their day, but they always maintained their calm in debate and disagreed respectfully. They never permitted others who spread their ideas to use their teachings as a source of conflict or as a means to cause division.

It could possibly be that the principle they developed, of coexistence in the face of changing political and social circumstances, came as a result of their engaging with the substantial societal changes they witnessed during the era in which they lived. They recognized a need to develop a clear and precise approach to respond to such changes.

It can be observed that none of the four imams ever accepted an official political post, not as judge nor magistrate nor anything else. At the same time, they also never constituted themselves as a political opposition. They never gave their support to the government’s political opponents, even though all four imams times suffered government persecution on account of accusations that they did. However, a close examination of the imams’ historical circumstances shows that such accusations were baseless. Instead, they were victims of the old idea: “You are either with us or against us.”

Their insistence on intellectual autonomy is what brought such suspicion upon them, along with how unscrupulous people would sometimes manipulate their statements and interpret their juristic verdicts for various political ends.

In truth, the four imams represented a third way: neither aligning themselves with the interests of those in power nor with the political opposition. This allowed them to carry out a vital leadership role of their own in maintaining social stability in a society made up of a number of contending factions: between the ruling class and the populace, as well as between a bewildering array of ideological factions and intellectual movements, not to mention ethnic and tribal differences. After all this, we can understand how they were so good at tolerating the disagreements of their colleagues among the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence!

They all kept a measured distance from the various contending elements in society while remaining fully connected to society. This made it possible for them to be a point of stability and balance, which protected Islamic civilization from a great deal of conflict, strife, and social disintegration.

The role they played in their times is all the more needed today with our widening social and class disparity and a weakened culture of tolerance, conditions that promote conflict whenever conditions are ripe for it.

The presence of an autonomous knowledge-based mediating authority is needed to act as a a source of strength for the weak and a moderating influence on the strong, to arbitrate in matters, and to impart to society the values of tolerance and mutual understanding. There is a need for those who can speak out for justice and the inalienable rights that are needed to ensure peace and security in any country, and which can prevent violent factions and extremist movements of whatever persuasion from developing.

The world contains nations where you find a strong government and an equally strong civil society. They are held together by organizing principles and their vital, political, social, and charitable institutions. This is what makes the government strong through its people and the people strong through their government.

Most Muslim countries do not enjoy this balancing of institutional power, essential for stability and continuity, which comes from the presence of mediating institutions that are widely recognized and accepted on both an official and popular level, institutions whose role is often only appreciated when their loss leads to the erosion of society.

Ideological and partisan disagreements, religious differences, and other potential sources of division do not inevitably lead to conflict and strife. Allah says in the Qur’ān: “It is He who has spread out the Earth for all His creatures.” [Sūrah al-Rahmān: 10]

Within the sphere of Islam, matters are referred back to universal principles and the legitimate needs of life that Islam upholds. When such a reference becomes impracticable due to the severity of the disagreement tor disparity of the parties involved and the matter cannot be brought to a resolution through dialogue, there still remains a broader circle for coexistence: the one of: “knowing one another” referred to in the verse: “O humankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” [Sūrah al-Hujurāt: 13]

This coming to know one another, this mutual and reciprocal knowledge of the other, is the foundation for social relationships necessitating goodwill, justice, and kindness.

It is possible that through such relationships you will realize your own best interests as well as those of the people you disagree with at one and the same time. We see this in so many aspects of life: commercial dealings, in public administration, health, development, and industry.

Returning to the four imams, it needs to be pointed out that the disagreements between them in Islamic Law were nothing compared to the disagreements that existed among the Companions and Successors. Moreover, they introduced through their own juristic efforts a number of opinions that were new to their generation. Therefore, it is wrong for anyone to claim that their views abrogate the views of their predecessors and exclude all views other than theirs.

The later scholars who worked within the framework of one of the four schools of law, though they did not usually go off in an entirely independent direction, never ceased to engage in choosing between different opinions and deducing new rulings on the basis of precedent. I have studied the legal preferences of the preeminent Hanbalī jurist Ibn Qudāmah, and found that he sometimes adopted a position that was at variance to what was adopted by all four schools of thought. He did so after acknowledging and discussing all of their received opinions. His judgments in these cases are often quite erudite and impressive.

We can find similar cases among the jurists of all four schools of law. This is because the views of the Companions, Successors, and other jurists are no less important than the views of the four imams. They were also from the earliest Muslim generations and theirs is a rich and valuable legacy which has been preserved for us in works like the Musannaf of `Abd al-Razzāq, the Musannaf of Ibn Abī Shaybah, and the writings of Ibn Mundhir.

When we look at the magnitude of the changes taking place in the world today, we can appreciate the value of there being such a broad spectrum of opinion during the earliest days of Islam. Their contributions should not be ignored, since they enrich our understanding of Islamic Law. Though there may have been times in the history of Muslim civilization that such a plurality of opinion was unnecessary for society to function, our present age is certainly not one of those times.

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Siraaj is the Executive Director of MuslimMatters. He's spent over two decades working in dawah organizations, starting with his university MSA and going on to lead efforts with AlMaghrib Institute, MuslimMatters, and AlJumuah magazine. He's very married with wonderful children



  1. Pingback: Shaykh Salman al-Oadah | The Four Imams: Leaders of a Third Way |

  2. abu Yunus

    May 10, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    Neither did the imaam say that you should leave the hadeeth and follow our opinion; something which many blind-followers of madhhabs do. In fact, they said the opposite. Hence, a lot of of claimants of these madhhabs are just that, they are not actual adherents.

  3. Ghazala

    May 10, 2011 at 1:34 AM

    Slamu ‘alaikum wr wb

    Jazakallahu khairan for an insightful article. May Allah give all these Imams Jannatul Firdaous. But I have always wondered why the difference of opinion of these Imams exists, when everything they say be it commands or prohibitions, rulings or justifications all can be traced back to the Qur’an and Sunnah. I have asked many many people and never been satisfied with the responses.

    Also why does one have to follow just 1 Imam and not all, for example Hanafi maslak says Qasar applies after distance ‘X’, while Hambali may say, it applies after distance ‘Y’ and both can be traced back to the Prophet. Why can I not shorten my Salah, say in one situation after dis. ‘X’ and in another situation after dis. ‘Y’ ?

    Thirdly why must one follow a Maslak. Simply following the Qur’an and Sunnah should suffice. To me if the Qur’an says it or the Prophet’s Sunnah or Hadith prove it or the Ijtima of scholars agrees upon it, I do it, otherwise I don’t. I do not follow any Maslak, am I wrong in that case?

    Please respond in detail as I have asked so many people including learned ones but I cannot understand any of this for the life of me, neither can I explain it to my children.

    Barak Allahu Feekum

    • mohammad taha

      May 10, 2011 at 7:20 AM

      even i cannot understand the difference between the imams .what could have been the reason —maybe they could’nt ,meet each other ,or their works could not be mutually compared ,surely they were not arrogant not to learn each others point of view and looking forward to reconcile.

    • Siraaj

      May 10, 2011 at 7:25 PM

      Salaam alaykum Ghazala,

      Often looking at the same evidences, scholars might come to different conclusions about what was meant, or whether something was a requirement or a recommendation. Throughout time, our scholars have been exposed to various intellectual influences that affect the way they process the Qur’aan and Sunnah (not a bad thing), and this can lead to different conclusions when constructing rulings.

      The differences are really not the problem – the problem is how people deal with it. When differences are respected, then the mercy in them is apparent because it reminds us that we cannot be perfect and though we are imperfect, so long as we are trying to please Allah, we can expect that our actions will be accepted.

      When differences are not respected, the mercy turns into a nightmare of broken brotherhood and hyper partisan bickering in masjids, communities, and even ethnic groups.


      • Abu Yusuf

        May 10, 2011 at 8:43 PM

        Brother memoni has indeed made a valid point about not letting the differences of opinion bifurcate communities or even split them asunder. Lots of minor things should not even be debated (where to hold the hands during salaah, to wag the index finger or hold it firm during tashhahhud, to eat Christian meat or stick only to Muslim-slaughtered meat, etc).

        One point to note about broad spectrums of opinions is that this does not mean acceptance of the dictums of clearly deviant branches such as the Isma’eelis, Rawaafid, Nusayrites, Saint-worshipping Sufis, etc. It only means acceptance of differences of opinion within the sunni methodology and aqeedah.

        I’m curious about the author of the article though. Had not Dr. Salman Aoudah fallen into disfavor and jailed by the erudite and forbearing scholar ibn Baaz and had not his tapes been banned and distribution of his literature condemned? I hope the case has eased upon the brother and unity and halcyon days exist.

    • Mezba

      May 11, 2011 at 9:59 AM

      Pick whichever ruling you like according to the situation – if they are all correct it shouldn’t matter. Islam came before the madhabs anyways, and I also read when one of the Imam was visiting another imam’s house, he prayed the way the host imam said, and not according to his own ruling. When people asked, he said it was to honour his host. So if the imams can pick and choose, so should we according to our situations. Quran says in Surah Taha Islam has not come to make our lives harder.

      • Siraaj

        May 11, 2011 at 5:29 PM

        Salaam alaykum mezba

        They aren’t all correct. They strove to find what is correct, but that doesn’t mean they always did. They strove to understand the truth according to their capacity and teach it to others. What is accurate to say is that they are not they are not held accountable for mistakes, nor are we in following them provided our goal is to please allah.

        Statements like “Islam came to make things easy” should be placed in better context – praying 5 times daily is not easy, as musa clearly understood and tried to have the prophet get a reduction, knowing well that he majority of people would not do it (and it’s true).

        Islam is submission to Allah and not situations. If our situation allows for options, then we can exercise those options as we like, but if not, then we should be careful of scapegoating multiple opinions to avoid a little discomfort.


        • Nahyan

          May 12, 2011 at 12:42 AM

          @Siraaj – just wanted to bold in your response: we should be careful of scapegoating multiple opinions to avoid a little discomfort.. Well put.

          @Mezba – The fuqaha are rewarded even if they concluded incorrectly and rewarded doubly for coming to the right ruling. So validity doesn’t equal “correct”.

          The switching you’re talking about must have knowledge basis (if that applies to the situation) rather than being for convenience. Then we’re kinda writing our own customized Islam. Know what I mean?

  4. Sajjad

    May 10, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    Salam alaykum , Sis Ghazala, You have rightly said or indicated that the way is One, i would recommened you the lecture of brother bilal philips which itself is named as the way is one…

    Please find the lecture on

    Here is the link :-

  5. Answer

    May 10, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Remember, all the scholars always claimed to be following the Quran and Sunnah. Once that is established, human beings being human beings, differ and see things differently (i.e. see the same evidence differently).

    This happens to us, for example, when someone asks you to rate an abstract painting. One person thinks it’s terrible while another thinks it’s great. There is no definitive way of saying why they differ… Differences are a mercy, and a God-sent.

  6. F

    May 10, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    Excellent article. If one look at the history of the Muslims over the last 1000 years, many of the problems have stemmed from an improper distribution of power between the various institutions. Therefore, we end up often with the khalifa/dictator who can do whatever he wants without any checks and balances.

  7. WAJiD

    May 11, 2011 at 12:36 PM

    Asalaam Alaikum,

    Whilst I very much agree with the sentiments expressed in this article (i.e. independent scholarship is vital + the principle of accepting that there is a range of acceptable differences of opinion) I just wanted to point out that this statement is not historically accurate:

    “They never gave their support to the government’s political opponents, even though all four imams times suffered government persecution on account of accusations that they did.”

    Imam Abu Hanifa financially and morally supported the Abassids against the Umayyads during the revolution that overthrew the latter for the former. Although, the point br. Siraaj makes about them not getting excessively involved stands.

    • Siraaj

      May 11, 2011 at 5:34 PM

      Actually, this shaykh Salman al oadahs article, not mine.

  8. Hfzshk

    May 11, 2011 at 6:26 PM

    Rather than wondering why the differences, why not look at it as Allah azza wa jal in his infinite mercy has created men capable of making differing opinions as a mercy to human kind. Can you imagine if there was only one way and that was it? I known i would struggle like mad.


  9. Ghazala

    May 12, 2011 at 8:05 AM

    Jazakumullahu khairan everyone for your insightful input and also the link :)
    It is indeed wonderful to be part of a universal Muslim ‘Ummah. Alhamdulillah.
    Off tangent, I hope some one can soon come up with a program for the youth, esp. with Summer break in (today’s the last day for Universities, in the south) . Not just suggestions and advice but something that says, today- watch this video or read that article with links provided, books suggested…..

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