Islamic Wisdom; Madhhab ( School of Thought) in Islam
Islamic jurisprudence has developed over fourteen centuries. Over that span of time, various schools of jurisprudence have emerged, each with its own interpretation and application of the Sharia. Many schools splintered farther, creating schools following different interpretive approaches and applications.
The main purpose of this article is to help the reader understand different sects and madhhabs and their function in Islamic law and then about Sufism in Islam. This will hopefully provide the reader with an appreciation of the nature, complexity, and importance and also help to understand the core beliefs of Islam.
Islamic law and what it means to be a practicing Muslim have changed and developed over centuries of thinking. Following the death of the prophet Muhammad PBUH, there have always been differences of opinion on how best to understand the message of God.
Different interpretations of what Islamic law should be is reflected in the diverse range of schools of thought or ways of studying and practicing Islam.
The common factor among the different groups is the Quran and the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) Sunnah as sources of information and guidance.
Madhhab ( School of Thought) :
A madhhab is an Arabic wordمذهب maḏhab which means “way to act”, and it is a school of thought within fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). A fiqh school or orientation is characterized by differences in the methods by which certain source texts are understood and therefore differences in the Shari`ah rulings which are deduced from them.
Although the term “school” is useful, it does not do full justice to the definition of a madhhab. Schools usually speak of people whereas a madhhab is primarily about a shared interpretational methodology.
A madhhab linguistically means “a way” and therefore it is a method of interpreting scripture that binds a group or school of scholars together.
The Importance of Madhhabs in Islamic history
It is important to provide a brief summary of the development of the madhhabs and the role they played in Islamic…
Reasons for the Emergence of Madhabib:
- With the expansion of the Muslim lands and the addition of different cultures to the Muslim world, new problems and issues arose. Political issues and scholarly disputes that emerged after the death of the Prophet also triggered the differences of views in scholarly fields.
- Differing ways of evaluating the verses and sayings of the Prophet related to the same issue led to the divergence of interpretations.
The Sunni and the Shia:
Sunni and Shia are the two main sects in Islam. The Sunni tradition, which today comprises approximately 85 to 90 percent of all Muslims, differs from Shia tradition, which comprises the remainder of the Muslim world. The distinction between the two traditions essentially derives from different approaches to governance.
The word Sunni is derived from the Arabic word “ Sunnah” which means a “ way”, referring to “ one of the path” or “ who follows the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. The Sunni believe, based on specific provisions of the Qur’an and the Sunna, that the Muslim people are to be governed by consensus (ijma’) through an elected head of state, the khalifa, according to democratic principles.
At the time of the death of the Prophet, there was a quarrel between the two groups for imamate (the temporal leadership of the religion). One group advocated the principle of the election in choosing the Imam. This group is known as “Sunni”. The adherents to the Sunni doctrine are called Sunni, Sunnis, Ahl us-Sunnah Wal Jama’ah.
According to the Sunni doctrine, the leader of Muslims, at any given moment, is the Caliph. He is mainly a temporal (worldly) ruler than the religious chief. He has to follow the “Shariat”. According to the Sunni doctrine, Caliphate is a political body headed by the Caliph (defunct since 1920). The idea was that the Caliph was to be chosen from among those most capable.
In the past, four principles for appointing the Caliph were recognized: consensus by the ummah, nomination by the preceding Caliph, selection by a committee, or by military force.
The term “Shia” itself is a contraction of the word “Shia-t-i-Ali” which literally means the “faction of Ali”. The Shia, however, believe that the leader of Islam, whom they refer to as the imam rather than the khalifa, must be a descendant of the Prophet. The concept is the basis for a hereditary hierarchy in the Shia tradition.
At the time of the death of the Prophet, there was a quarrel between the two groups for imamate (the temporal leadership of the religion). One group opposed the principle of the election in choosing the Imam and proclaimed that Ali is the successor of the ‘Prophet’. This group is known as “Shia”.
They deny and dispute the principle of election by the people in the matter of Caliphate, and hold that the Prophet had appointed Ali as his successor. The Adherent to the Shia doctrine are called Shiites, Shi’ites, Shia, Shi’a, Shi’i, Ahl at-Tashayyu’.
According to Shia doctrine, Imam is the final interpreter of the laws. The Imam is not a leader by an election, but by divine right as he is the successor of the Prophet, a descendant of Ali. The Shias hold that no hadith is valid unless it is related by an Imam descended from the Prophet. The Shias accept the authority of the Quran but say that only the Imam can interpret it correctly as a law.
The Imamate is a religious body headed by the Imam. It is occupied by the hidden Mahdi known as ‘mujtahid’. The Imam must be a male descendant of the lineage of Mohammad through his daughter Fatima and must be chosen by God. Imams are sinless.
The Shia movement dates from the period when a group of Muslims wanted Ali ibn abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, to become the khalifa instead of Abu Bakr, who had been elected the first khalifa following the death of Muhammad in 632. They advanced his candidacy on the basis of heredity. However, they were out voted. Ali ultimately became the fourth khalifa, succeeding Uthman, who succeeded Umar, who succeeded Abu Bakr. But Ali was overthrown by the rebellion of Muawia, the governor of Syria, whose seat was in Damascus. Muawia rebelled against Ali because he attributed the assassination of his kinsman Uthman to Ali’s followers. Ali was subsequently assassinated after losing the Tahkim (arbitration) to Muawia. His followers then constituted what would today be cal led a political party to reinstate him and to secure succession to the Khalifa.
In 680 Hussain, one of Ali’s sons, led a number of Muslims who were then rebelling against the ruling khalifa to try to establish in the area between Iran and Iraq a caliphate based on heredity from the Prophet. However, Hussain was lured into Iraq, and there at a place called Karbala he and his followers were massacred. Hussain’s martyrdom spurred the Shia movement in Iraq and Iran. The anniversary of Karbala is commemorated every year by the Shia population. In Iran, in particular, it is conducted by means of a large popular demonstration in which people publicly weep and flagellate themselves as a sign of their remorse.
The political rift between followers of the principle of election and those favoring descent from the Prophet generated some other differences between Sunni and Shia approaches to jurisprudence.
For example, the Shia view the sayings of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, and his cousin Ali (Fatima’s husband), the fourth khalifa of Islam, as equally authoritative as the Sunna of the Prophet. The Sunni do not.
There are other differences involving the structure of Islam, such as the existence of an organized Shia clergy, which does not exist in the Sunni tradition. Among them, the Shia allow the imam much wider latitude in government than the Sunni ever could in light of the principles of consensus and equality.
The most important of all differences between Sunni and Shia relates to the interpretation of the Qur’an. The Sunni look more to the letter of the Qur’an; the Shia look more to its spirit.
In Arabic, the distinction is referred to as al-dhaher (the apparent) versus al-baten (the hidden) meaning of the Qur’an. Thus the Shia religious hierarchy plays a determining role in interpreting the Qur’an. This role reinforces their spiritual and temporal influence in Shia society.
O ye who believe! Be steadfast witness for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to Allah. Lo! Allah is informed of what we do.
( Qur’an 5:8 )
And hold fast, All together, by the rope which God (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude God’s favour on you; For ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace, Ye became brethren; And ye were on the brink of the pit of fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth God make His signs clear to you: that ye may be guided.
( Qur’an 3:103)
Madhabib in Islam:
The Legal systems in Islam are associated with different schools of thought. There was a sweeping range of opinion in the first three centuries of Islamic history, and at one point, there were over 100 different schools of thought. There are four well-known madhahib among Sunni Muslims whose names are associated with the classical jurists who are said to have founded them (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i, and Hanbali).
The Sunni follow any one of four major schools of jurisprudence founded by imams ibn Hanbal, Abu Hanifa, Malek, and el-Shafei, scholars of the ninth to eleventh centuries. These schools referred to respectively as the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafei, are followed by different Muslim states either entirely or in part.
Even though there are differences in interpretation of the Sharia among these authorities, they are all recognized as valid.
- The Hanbali School is named after Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 855)
- The Hanafi School is named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767)
- The Shafi’i is named after al-Shafi’I (d. 819)
- The Maliki is named after Anas bin Malik (d. 795)
THE HANAFI SCHOOL:
The Hanafi School is the oldest surviving school of Islamic law, and the one with the largest following.
It originated in Kufa, present day Iraq, but its influence spread to both the Mughal and Ottoman empires and can now be found from Turkey to Central Asia, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and as far as Western Europe and North America.
The school’s founder, Abu Hanifa, was a trader as a young man. However, it seems he was not well suited to this career — he once demanded to pay five times the asking price from a woman selling silk at the market.
In 763 CE he was imprisoned for refusing to collaborate with a judiciary he considered corrupt. He died in prison four years later.
As well as using the Quran and the Prophet’s (PBUH) life as sources of guidance, this group also relied heavily on using logical arguments to find answers to social problems that also fitted in with their understanding of Islam.
THE SHAFI’I SCHOOL:
The Shafi’i School also has a wide influence in Egypt, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
This school of thought is named after Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, a precocious student, who is described by historians as the master architect of Islamic law.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, with the aid of his peers, was to lay down the roots of a common framework for all schools of Islamic thought to follow when producing legal judgements on issues of faith and how it should be practised.
THE MALIKI SCHOOL:
This school is named after Imam Anas bin Malik, 715 CE, who, to support his studies, sold the ceiling beams of his home to buy the necessary books.
He was an unwavering defender of personal freedom, famously issuing a fatwa that stated that no person should be forced to pledge allegiance to the ruling government in Medina, and was heavily flogged for doing so (although the authorities later apologised for their actions).
The Maliki School has its main following in Egypt, as well as having smaller groups of followers in Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, although it originated in Saudi Arabia in the city of Medina. When the Maliki School was formed the word Sunnah did not yet mean the ‘traditions’ or ‘practice’ of the Prophet (pbuh) specifically but also referred to the actions of the people of Medina at the time.
THE HANBALI SCHOOL:
The Hanbali School was developed in Baghdad, although today the followers of the school are concentrated mainly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The founder of the school, Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, was taught by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, the founder of the Shafi’i School. There is therefore a direct link between the Shafi’i and the Hanbali school.
The Hanbali school derives its rulings almost solely from the Quran and Sunnah, which proves to be popular with groups of people wishing to return to a ‘purer’ Islam (the Wahabi movement, for instance, emerged out of the Hanbali school). Other influential figures in the school were al-Kiraqi (d. 946), Ibn Qudama (d. 1223)., Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350).
The Shia reject not only the jurists but also all the traditions not handed down by its immediate descendants. The three important schools of law among Shia are Isna Ashari or Jaafari, Ismaili and Zayadi.
- The Zaydi School is named after Zayd Ibn Ali (d. 740)
- The Ja’fari School is named after Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765)
- The Ismaili School
The Ja‘fari School:
The Ja‘fari school of thought was headed by Imam Ja‘far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq who lived from 83H to 148H. He was born in and died in the holy city of Madina, and he is the sixth Imam of the twelve designated imams of the school of Ahlul Bayt. Although the fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) was developed by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors (i.e., the imams), the fiqh, as taught by the Shi‘a, did not have the opportunity to be presented to the masses of people because of the political predicament that the Ahlul Bayt suffered under the rulers for many centuries.
The imams refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, and their governments; and thus they and their followers were exposed to tremendous harassment and persecution at the hands of the unjust caliphs. Once the Umayyad government became weak, Imam Ja‘far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq found a golden opportunity to formulate and spread the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and his family. At one time, four thousand scholars, commentators of the Qur’an, historians, and philosophers attended his classes in the holy city of Madina.
Therefore, he was able to pass down the authentic teachings of the Noble Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad and crystallize them in what came to be known as al-Fiqh al-Ja‘fari, the Ja‘fari Jurisprudence. His teachings were collected in 400 usul (foundations) which were written by his students and encompass hadith, Islamic philosophy, theology, commentary of the Qur’an, literature, and ethics.
After a period of time, three distinguished scholars categorized these 400 usul in four books which are the main sources of hadith for the Shi‘a school of thought. They are: Usul al-Kafi by al-Kulayni (d.329H), Man La Yahduruh al-Faqih by al-Saduq (d.381H), and al-Tahdib and al-Istibsar by al-Tusi (d.460H). These three scholars were known as the “three Muhammads” since their first names were all Muhammad.
While these four books are the main sources of hadith for the Shi‘a, their authors still did not label their books as “sahih” (authentic). Although they did their best to gather only authentic traditions, but if a particular tradition contradicted the Noble Qur’an then it was not accepted as legal and valid. Hadith, according to the Ja‘fari school of thought, are accepted only if the Noble Qur’an verifies them, since the Noble Qur’an is the only undoubtable source of guidance.
In south Asia, They consist of two groups, viz, the Khojas or Eastern Ismailis, representing the followers of the present Aga Khan, who is believed to be 49th Imam in the line of the prophet, and the western Ismailis, who are popularly called Bohoras and may be divided into Daudis and Sulaymanis and various other small groups. The word “Bohra” merely means merchant and does not signify any particular school of Muslim law.
The Khojas and Bohras of Mumbai (Bombay) belong to this school. They are identified with esoteric and gnostic (having special knowledge) religious doctrines.
Ismailis are more open to the importance and role of women and less literal or strict and more tolerant in their view and practice of Islam in my experience.
They are not found in India but found in South Arabia. This sect is the most prominent in Yemen. The followers of this school are known for their political activism.
The beliefs of this school are closer to the orthodox Hanafi Sunni school and often rejected by Twelver Shia school. They recognize the principle of an election as the basis of the succession and consider the Imam is nothing more than a ‘right guide’.
The Sufi Movement:
The Sufi movement is a mystical strain in Islam that reflects the need of individuals to transcend formal religious practices in order to attain higher levels of spiritual fulfillment.
The Sufis are represented in all schools of thought in Islam and found in all Muslim communities. Because of its mystical, spiritual character, Sufism appeals more to individuals and small groups. It does not constitute either a sect or a school of thought but is rather a spiritual or transcendental practice that persists despite criticism from orthodox theologians.
Sufis believe they follow the Prophet’s mysticism, particularly during the Meccan period of the revelations. Thus, in their practices, there is much meditation and solitary or group recitation of prayers and incantations of their own religious formulas. They seek a life of ascetic pietism, shunning worldly pleasures and seeking the inward purity of a relationship with God through love, patience, forgiveness, and other higher spiritual qualities.
Their influence on the development of Islam is more significant than is usually recognized. Their ascetic piety and rigidly ethical conception of Islamic society have influenced generations of Muslims. They have also had from time to time strong political influence.
What characterizes Sufis the most is their “inwardism” or belief that the Sharia only regulates external conduct, whereas inward feelings are matter strictly between each person and the Creator. Because of their emphasis on the love of God, they have developed the doctrine of Tawakul (reliance on God), which is central to the relationship between Man and God. Sufism also has had a significant impact on the practical aspects of administering a state.
The Qur’an and Sunnah function as sources of law rather than law themselves. Because sources of law require interpretation, All Muslims seek to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah. But the larger question is how does this actually occur? Average Muslims understandably feel overwhelmed by the complexity of Islamic law and prefer an easier and straightforward explanation of Islam.
Schools of Islamic thought (madhahib) are the paths people follow to the Noble Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad. They consist of scholars who abide by the interpretive methodology of the school. At the same time, the madhhabs allow flexibility and can adapt to change based on different times, locations, and circumstances.
Obviously, these schools of thought were founded considerably after the death of the Prophet. Today, the five schools of Islamic thought accepted by all Muslims are the main Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi΄i, Hanbali, and Ja‘fari.
“Difference of opinion among my community is a sign of the bounty of God.” Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
May Allah bless you with happiness, success, guidance, health, and knowledge. May Almighty Allah give us the strength to follow the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) and make us part of the group who is among the most righteous! Ameen.
Verily good deeds do away with evil deeds.
And that is a reminder for those who remember.
Be patient with yourself. And Keep learning!!
I will be calmer, I will spread love as long as I can, I will live a spiritual life, I will do what I please no matter what and I will prove my theories.
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Always start your day by renewing your intention that everything you do for yourself and your community, whether it be your acts of worship or daily chores. It all has to be merely for the sake of Allah (SWT) and also, I ask Allah (SWT) to make my work dedicated only to him and forgiveness from Allah (SWT), if I have got anything wrong. It is He who is the Hearing, the knowing.
Finally, I pray to Allah to benefit those who read this article and others, grant me truthfulness in what I say and do, preserve my thoughts and my pen from deviation and guide me in all my affairs.
And all praise and thanks are due to Allah, without Whose help and guidance nothing can be accomplished.
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