Just about every Muslim on the planet knows about the four Schools of Thought in Islam, also called Madhhab. And chance are you belong to one of them, whether you know it or not.
Most of the Muslim world is divided into these four Schools of Thought in Islam. So if you’re from West Africa, chances are you belong to the Maliki Madhhab, or Maliki School of thought.
If you’re from the Indian subcontinent, then you most likely belong to the Hanafi Madhhab. If you’re from Malaysia, then you’re probably from the Shafi’i Madhhab, and if you’re from the Arabian Peninsula you might belong to the Hanbali School.
Before I get too in depth with these schools of thought in Islam, let’s clear one thing up.
Sometimes Muslims feel we’re too divided because of these Schools of Thought of Islam. They think this gives the enemies of Islam ample ammunition to create divisions between us.
To a certain extent, that is true. There are some Muslims who stick too strongly to their Madhhab to their detriment and the detriment of Islam as a whole.
But when you compare these divisions in Islam to the divisions in say…Christianity, there’s really no comparison.
Yes, we have two major sects of Islam: Sunni and Shia.
And the Sunnis are generally divided into these four Islamic Schools of Thought.
However, in the United States alone, there are over 200 Protestant Christian denominations!
200! And that’s just the Protestants. Only Allah knows how many more there are among the Catholics, Eastern Orthordox, or Coptic Christians.
The Sunni Schools of Thought in Islam are named after the Imam (leader) they were founded by. They are:
None of these men set out to establish their own School of thought. They were simply righteous men dedicated to studying and teaching Islam. But their knowledge and piety became well known and people began to gravitate towards them to study under them.
It was really the students of these Imams who perpetuated their teachings, recorded their rulings, and established the Madhhab.
Each of these Imams were more concerned with following the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) then about making a name for themselves. In fact, after studying their history, I was amazed that all of them were reluctant to impose their rulings on other Muslims. They were always aware of the fact that they could be wrong.
Another interesting thing about the Imams is that each and every one of them suffered some form of persecution from the Muslim Caliphs of their time.
The Umayyad Caliph of his time wanted to make Abu Haneefah a judge. This was not because the rulers loved him so much. This was because having a scholar like Imam Abu Haneefah in the employ of the government would give the rulers legitimacy. But Abu Haneefa refused to accept the post. Because of this he was imprisoned and beaten.
But the persecution didn’t end there for Abu Haneefah. The Umayyads were overthrown and the Abbasids took over the Islamic Caliphate. The Abbasid Caliph Mansur offered him a position as judge and he again refused. For this, he was imprisoned and remained there until his death.
During Imam Malik’s time, the Abbassid government passed a law that any man who broke his oath would be divorced from his wife or wives. Imam Malik ruled that this was against Islam and no such divorce was valid.
Because he did not validate the government’s law, he was imprisoned and beaten.
Imam Shafi’i experienced the least persecution, but his life was not without trials. During his lifetime, there was a revolt against the Abbassid Caliphate. The revolt failed and Imam Shafi’i was brought before the governor and tried as a co-conspirator. Imam Shafi’i had nothing to do with the revolt and was eventually able to prove his innocence. Nonetheless, he was detained until he was able to do so.
Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal lived during a time with the Mu’tazilite teachings were gaining popularity in the Muslim world. Mu’tazilites use a rational and logical approach to Islam. And using their rationale and logic, they came to the conclusion that the Quran was created and not the uncreated Speech of Allah.
Imam Ibn Hanbal rejected this idea as did most of the scholars of his time. The Quran is the Speech of Allah and was not created just as Face, Shin, and Hands of Allah were not created.
Unfortunately, the Abbassid Caliph Ma’moon was influenced by Mu’tazilite thought. The Caliph had those opposed to the idea that the Quran was created imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and even killed.
Imam Ahmed was one of those who suffered this persecution. He was persecuted by Caliph Ma’moon and his successor Caliph Wathiq.
For the vast majority of Muslims, there’s nothing wrong with adhering to certain schools of thought in Islam. Most of us are not going to be scholars and will only go but so far in attaining Islamic knowledge. Therefore, we’re going to do what our parents, teachers, and Imams tell us to do. We should follow the instructions and guidance of those scholars that have attained more knowledge than us.
The Four Imams were well educated in all fields of Islamic thought as were their students who established their schools. So we would be foolish to throw out all of this Islamic knowledge and assume we can figure it all out on our own.
But the problem arises when certain Muslims make following a certain Imam obligatory; as if following an Imam is as important as following the Prophet (pbuh). And some Muslims even go so far as to make their Madhhab like a totally different faith. There once was a time when Muslims from one Madhhab were not allowed to marry Muslims from schools of thought in Islam!
For those Muslims who reach a certain level of knowledge, they are obligated to take the truth wherever they find it. So if they find that a ruling in another Madhhab has stronger evidence than the one they belong to, they should accept the one with stronger evidence.
And for us normal Muslims, when we are given a ruling and are presented the evidence to it, we should not shun it on the basis that it is not the Madhhab we follow. To blindly follow any of the schools of thought in Islam, regardless of whether a certain practice or ruling is right or wrong, is foolhardy.
Like most things in life, we need to strike a balance.
Myself, I was taught under both the Maliki and Hanafi schools. So I have a mixture of these two schools of thought in Islam. However, when I learn of something that has more evidence, I adopt that ruling and practice, even if it goes against something that was done by the Malikis or Hanafis.
For example, the Malikis pray with their hands to their sides. I used to pray like that until I was taught the Hadith that showed the Prophet prayed with his hands folded over his chest.
Yahya related to me from Malik from Abu Hazim ibn Dinar that Sahl ibn Sad said, “People used to be ordered to place their right hands on their left forearms in the prayer.”
Abu Hazim added, “I know for sure that Sahl traces that back to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.”
Muwatta Imam Malik
The above hadith is taken from Imam Malik’s hadith collection, Al-Muwatta. Here is clear proof, from the founder of the Maliki school of thought himself, that the Prophet prayed with his arms folded over his chest.
In the Hanafi Madhhab, I was taught that eating shrimp was haraam (forbidden) as it wasn’t classified as a fish. However, when I learned of the following hadith, I had to reject that ruling also:
“A man asked Allah’s Messenger ‘O Messenger of Allah! We sail the seas, and we only carry a little water with us. If we use it for Wudu then we will go thirsty. So shall we perform Wudu from the (water of the) sea?’ Allah’s Messenger said: ‘Its water is pure, and its dead are lawful.’”
This hadith shows that everything from the sea, even dead creatures you may find floating at the top, is lawful to eat. Furthermore, there are no hadiths or verses of Quran forbidding shrimp. It is not right to make something haraam that Allah and His Messenger (pbuh) have not made haraam.
Therefore, I like to say I follow the School of Thought of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to the best of my ability.
And Allah knows best.
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