(لا تقوم الساعة حتى لا يقال لا إله إلا الله) (The Hour will not commence until it’s not said: there is no God except Allah) The statement quoted above is an authentic Hadith of the Prophet peace be upon him, … Continue reading
In this day and age of throwing terms around that many don’t have a good handle on the meanings of, it is a requirement that one understands what their speaking about. We live during a time that many Muslims are issuing judgments and declaring rulings left, right and centre, yet not understanding the inner workings of the subject matter their talking about. So I decided to write a bit of a technical article regarding the subject of innovation.
Before getting into this subject, I should make a factual assertion. To seek lifting the difference of opinions in most matters of Islam, which originate from the days of the Companions may God be pleased with them to our current times is to seek the unattainable. Therefore, the Muslim should not be overly concerned and trouble him or herself with differences that have been around from the very beginning until now. However, what should be sought, if one is indeed attempting to understand, is that which is weightier and sounder according to the majority of scholars, depending on the matter at hand.
The word “innovation” (bid’a – بدعة) is an Arabic term referring to anything that is new and not familiar from the past. God Almighty says in Chapter 46, Verse 9 of the Quran:
قُلۡ مَا كُنتُ بِدۡعً۬ا مِّنَ ٱلرُّسُلِ وَمَآ أَدۡرِى مَا يُفۡعَلُ بِى وَلَا بِكُمۡۖ إِنۡ أَتَّبِعُ إِلَّا مَا يُوحَىٰٓ إِلَىَّ وَمَآ أَنَا۟ إِلَّا نَذِيرٌ۬ مُّبِينٌ۬
Say: I am not the first of the Messengers and I don not know what will be done with me or with you
What the above verse means is that the Prophet peace be upon him did not come with a new creed. Rather, he was just confirming the same message delivered by the Prophets who preceded him.
As I’ve come across it in my studies, the use of the term “innovation” during the Prophetic era was for anything new whether it was acceptable or not. However, from the Islamic ruling point of view, as according to the narration from Abi Tha’laba Al Khashni and some of the narrations of Ibn Abbas may God be pleased with both of them, that the Prophet peace be upon him used to always mention in his sermons that every innovation is a misguidance.
To put the definition simply according to the Shariah, what the Prophet peace be upon him was referring to is all that stands against the Prophetic Tradition (Sunnah).
From a historical perspective, the very first innovation was the armed revolt against the rightly-guided Caliphs as the Kharijites did when they killed Othman Bin Affan may God be pleased with him, and then killed Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib may God be pleased with him. Just a side note, this is not the same thing as what is taking place in the Middle East, but that’s another topic of discussion.
The definition given by Imam Ash’Shatibi may God have mercy on him was that an innovation is:
الطريقة في الدين التي لم ترد في السنة ويراد بها المبالغة في العبادة
A practice in the religion that did not come in the Tradition with the purpose to exaggerate in the acts of worship
The Imam did exclude worldly transactions implicitly in his definition, as well as explicitly in his text Al I’tsam (الاعتصام), which you can review if you’re looking for more details.
It should be pointed out here that for something to be declared an innovation, it really goes back to the intention behind it. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him said about innovation:
Whoever wears a robe that is a particular color intending with it to get closer to God has innovated in the religion
Saying that innovation opposes the Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him prompts one to make an inquiry into what can be defined as the Tradition. It turns out that Imam Ash’Shawokani divided the actions of the Prophet peace upon him into 7 types:
- What he peace be upon him did as a religious act and therefore is required to be followed
- What he peace be upon him did as part of his regular human character and actions such as sleeping and eating and drinking and the like. This is not considered an act of worship in itself for it is how he peace be upon him was created by God. Emulating the Prophet peace be upon him in these actions would be out of love for him and depends on the environment one lives in
- What oscillated between a religious act and a character act of the Prophet peace be upon him. For example, the light nap on his right side that he peace be upon him used to take after the two rak’ats before Fajr, and the sitting after finishing the obligatory prayers. The majority of scholars went to the opinion that these were matters of character of the Prophet peace be upon him. However, the Shafi’i scholars went to the opinion that these were closer to being acts of worship
- What he peace be upon him did as one of his duties such as leading the prayers, judging between people, and leading the army, etc.
- What he peace be upon him did as punishment for some people due to transgressions of the law
- What he peace be upon him awaited until Revelation came
- What the evidence has indicated was specific for him peace be upon him and not for others, and this is divided into 3 categories:
- What has been indicated to be obligatory for the Prophet peace be upon him, but recommended for the rest of Muslims, such as brushing the teeth (siwak), praying during the night (qiyam), and praying the early morning prayer (Duha).
- What has been indicated to be prohibited for the Prophet peace be upon him and discouraged for the rest of Muslims, such as wearing dirty clothes, and eating while leaning on something
- What has been indicated to be obligatory or permissible for the Prophet peace be upon him and prohibited for the rest of Muslims, such as being married to more than 4 wives at once
This extensive breakdown of the actions of the Prophet peace be upon him by Imam Ash’Shawokani brings the approach towards the Prophetic Tradition into perspective. Once it is determined that a particular act is in fact intended for worship, and has been qualified as an innovation, the “innovation” qualification is categorized into two subcategories:
An Authentic Innovation (Bid’a Haqeeqiyya – بدعة حقيقية)– this is one that has been invented without any basis in the religion with the purpose of completing the religion with something that one sees as missing from it. In doing so the individual coming up with such an innovation would be denying the Verse where God says:
ٱلۡيَوۡمَ أَكۡمَلۡتُ لَكُمۡ دِينَكُمۡ وَأَتۡمَمۡتُ عَلَيۡكُمۡ نِعۡمَتِى وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ ٱلۡإِسۡلَـٰمَ دِينً۬اۚ
Today I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion
An Additional Innovation (Bid’a Iddhafiyya – بدعة اضافية)– this is one where there is a basis for the act of worship. However, the general proofs have not dictated this act of worship to be performed in this invented manner or at that time. For example, praying voluntary prayers is something that has come down in the Prophetic Tradition. But for one to consistently pray after the Asr prayer 4 rak’ats as a voluntary act, or for one to repeat a certain invocation or praise of God in a certain formula, would be something innovated, albeit has a basis that it originated from even though not in the specific formulation the individual is performing conducting the act.
Imam Ash’Shatibi may God have mercy on him and many of the scholars include the Additional Innovation in the general statement of the Prophet peace be upon that every innovation is a misguidance. However, Imam Al Iz Ibn Abdus’Salam and Imam Al Qarafi may God have mercy on them, as well as others do not include it because it has been authentically transmitted that the Prophet peace be upon him has approved actions of this sort. For example, the Ansari companion who started with the new more elaborate hamd (ربنا ولك الحمد حمدا كثيرا طيبا مباركا الخ) after raising from ruku’ in the prayer. Some scholars have objected to using this as a proof by saying that this was done while the Prophet peace upon him was alive when he could approve such an act and can’t be generalized. The response back against this objection was that the Prophet peace be upon was teaching the Muslims that the principle of doing something new that has a sound basis in the religion is accepted. So the matter has a difference in opinion; the Authentic Innovation is rejected by all the scholars, whereas the Additional Innovation is differed upon.
Just a note here, when it comes to the approval of the Prophet peace upon him, it was of two types. Either he approved it verbally and commended the action performed, or he approved it silently, which is a different type of Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him – Al Sunnah Al Iqrariya (السنة الاقرارية).
There is a saying that is incorrectly repeated by many Muslims nowadays, which is that “innovation is worse than sin”. The incorrectness of the statement stems from the fact that innovation is one of the categories under the general heading of “Sin”. The statement is incorrectly used due to a misunderstanding of what Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him meant when he made it, which is that an innovation that takes one out of the folds of Islam is worse than sin. This makes sense, because the innovation that causes one to be declared a non-Muslim is definitely worse than a general sin, which doesn’t take one out of Islam.
What about the statement from the pious predecessors that the innovator has no repentance?
This was a statement made by Abu Umar Ash’Shaybani and when he made it, it was based on his personal experience of innovators who generally are not guided by God to repent from their innovation. This is understandable given the fact that the innovator falsely believes that he is doing something pleasing to God, when in fact he is not. However, it should be pointed out that this statement does not refer to matters where there is a difference in opinion among the scholars. Just because some have deemed a matter to be an innovation, it does not negate the opinion of those who have not deemed it so. So one should be very careful not to judge others.
I should mention that some attempt to utilize the categorization of innovation into a good innovation or a bad innovation, while others have tried going with the categorization of Imam Al Iz Ibn Abdus’Salam of innovation into 5 types; obligatory, recommended, permissible, discouraged, and prohibited. These categorizations are valid only from a linguistic point of view. But no one can ever say that something that has been deemed an Authentic Innovation to have anything good in it.
A final issue is in regards to how some Muslims deem it impermissible to sit and talk with innovators. The first question that needs to be answered is whether the innovation is differed upon or not. If it’s unanimously agreed upon and the person can be declared Islamically to be an innovator, then those who are feared to be affected should avoid this individual. However, it’s an obligation for the one who is able to sit with the innovator to remind them and establish the proof against them. The Quran itself is filled with sitting with non-believers to establish the proofs and to tender their hearts, so how can one not extend this type of treatment to a fellow believer who happens to be committing a sin. Furthermore, abandoning a Muslim is in itself impermissible if it goes beyond 3 days.
This article was more on the technical and dry side, but necessary because the approach to the Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him in Islam needs to be a knowledgeable one. Some Muslims are using the term “innovation” more freely than the term allows for in the Shariah, simply because they’re unaware of what the scholars have said about the term. Rather than a superficial following of what one hears from others that have not investigated the matter, I hope what I’ve written here brings some things to light for those who have not been exposed to the longer texts dealing with this matter. I avoided talking about the obvious examples that come to one’s mind when the subject of “innovation” is addressed, such as the celebration of the birth of the Prophet peace be upon him, because that would require a separate article – something that I may write about in the future if God wills it.
That and God knows best.
The use of the term “religion” as a general adjective to describe the different faiths practiced by the diverse populations in today’s world is problematic. For instance, it assumes their similarity to a degree which renders them interchangeable, and that any apparent differences in practice are insignificant in the big picture. In the west, when the term “religion” is used, the word is pregnant with a Christian understanding. This is not surprising since the western experience and background has been a Christian one. However, as the communication revolution is shrinking the world into a “global village”, and as the western culture becomes more diverse with increased immigration, it behooves one to qualify the term “religion” so as not to create a confusion, and more importantly so as not to be inherently confused.
The importance of such qualification of the term “religion” lies in the fact that despite the values and ethics various religions share to different degrees, there are fundamental differences within them that touch on core foundations, which dictate a particular worldview that is unique to each. Examples of where the differences lie include the understanding of God, the relationship between the physical and metaphysical realms, as well as the position mankind takes in relationship to the physical and metaphysical realms. One of the most important differences between religions relates to how The World is seen.
As a pre-emptive to the following lines for those who do not speak Arabic, it should be known that the Arabic language is based on root words, which for the most part are composed from three letters while in some cases from four. In other words, picture a tree where the root word is the trunk, and the branches are the different words that derive from it. Arabic has thousands upon thousands of those trees. In the Arabic language are two common terms used for The World as it is presented in the Quran. One word is عالم (a’lam), which is a branch from the three-letter root word ع ل م (a’ li’ ma’), which has a basic meaning relating to “that which is known”. The other word commonly used is دنيا (dunya), which is more interesting for me. In traditional Arabic, the second word was used to describe a branch of grapes that looks close enough to reach for and grab, but once one reaches for it they realize that it’s too far to be grasped. The understanding here is that one is under an illusion that the branch is close and they can reach it, but the reality of the matter is that it’s unreachable. Linguistically, the word dunya comes from the three-letter root word د ن ي (da’ ni’ ya’), which means “to come close”, i.e. come closer to me (idnu’ ila’ia ادنو إلي). It also means “that which is low”.
It should be made clear here that what I’ve done is not doing lexicological justice to these words, but it’s meant to bring them a little closer to light in order to give an accessible understanding to the topic at hand.
Once the Arabic terminology is understood, how Islam treats The World in the light of faith becomes clearer. The World has two aspects to it from an Islamic point of view; one whose pursue is permitted, while the other’s is condemned. A common misunderstanding by many Muslims, especially ones who have lived and studied in the west is that a devout Muslim would view The World as “just a temporary state and has no meaning”. While this might in some way reflect an old traditional Christian understanding, albeit an incomplete and misunderstood one, the statement carries a correct notion about The World, namely its temporality, but overall is incorrect from an Islamic point of view. To call The World meaningless is to make everything within it a meaningless and vain pursuit. There would no longer be a point in demanding justice, seeking happiness, showing kindness, establishing good relations, or anything else that has to do with the human presence on this planet. It would then follow that everyone should give up and forfeit everything to the Next World and to simply suffer through a miserable existence, and while doing so dedicate their lives to a monk-like lifestyle in the mountains somewhere. On the other hand, you can reject such a notion and pursue a materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle for however long a time you have to live on this planet.
The Quran deals with how The World should be approached in several verses. One of the most interesting (to me) is in chapter 57, verse 20:
ٱعلَمُواْ أَنَّمَا ٱلحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنيَا لَعِبٌ وَلَهوٌ وَزِينَة وَتَفَاخُرُ بَينَكُم وَتَكَاثُرٌ فِى ٱلأَموَٲلِ وَٱلأَولَـٰدِ كَمَثَلِ غَيثٍ أَعجَبَ ٱلكُفَّارَ نَبَاتُهُ ۥ ثُمَّ يهيجُ فَتَرَهُ مُصفَرًّا ثُمَّ يَكُونُ حُطَـٰمًا وَفِى ٱلأَخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَغفِرَةٌ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَرِضوَٲنٌ وَمَا ٱلحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنيَا إِلَّا مَتَـٰعُ ٱلغُرُورِ
Know that the life of The World is only play, and idle talk, and pageantry, and boasting among you and rivalry in respect of wealth and children; as the likeness of vegetation after rain, whereof the growth is pleasing to the farmer, but afterward it dries up and you see it turning yellow, and then it becomes straw. And in the Hereafter there is grievous punishment, and (also) forgiveness from God and His good pleasure, whereas the life of The World is but matter of illusion.
The analogy given in the verse about The World’s illusionary nature is that of plants sown by farmers, which receive a good rain that allows their growth and vegetation, thus overly impressing the farmers. But finally the plants wither and become yellow as they eventually die off. In the commentary on this verse by Al Zamakh’shari in his exegesis on the Quran named Al Kashaf, he mentions that here the Quran is warning the reader to not by deluded by all the “stuff” because in reality it will all perish in the end. Al Tabari in his exegesis Jami’ Al Bayan mentions that the temporality of the illusionary pleasures of dunya, are contrasted with the everlasting realities of the Next World. An interesting narration is related in the exegesis of this verse by Al Qurtubi, in which he mentions what Imam Ali may God be pleased with him says about dunya to a man:
Don’t despair about dunya for it is 6 things: food, drink, clothing, scent, a ride, and a mate. The best of food is honey, and it’s the excrement of bees; the best of drink is water, and all animals are similar in their need for it; the best of clothing is silk, which a bug makes; the best of scents is musk, and it’s a glandular secretion from deer; the best of rides is the horse, and on top of it men are killed; the best of mates are women, and they all decorate themselves in ways to cover blemishes.
Some might misunderstand this verse, and in fact use it to rebuke the pursuit of material prosperity during one’s lifetime. This is a gross deviation from what the verse is actually warning against. The warning is against becoming a victim to the illusion, i.e. dunya. Such a point is addressed by Al Qurtubi in his work “The Secrets of Asceticism”. A superficial read of this book makes it seems that one should sell everything they own, give up all the proceeds, and live in a hut under a bridge. But a deeper analysis of what is said by Al Qurtubi brings to light what a misunderstanding this would be. It is not reprehensible to own a fancy house, drive a nice car, or dress and eat well. This only becomes a problem when one goes to an extreme and worse yet when one forgets that at some point it will all perish, and more importantly none of it will be taken to the grave. The problem is when one becomes emotionally attached to it. There is a vast difference between pursuing material things for their sake, and pursuing them for a greater purpose that they can be utilized for. Islam does not view The World as a meaningless place. Rather, it has an illusionary property that one can fall for as part of being in it, which is in reality the meaningless pursuit.
God says in the Quran in chapter 7, verse 32:
قُل مَن حَرَّمَ زِينَةَ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّتِى أَخرَجَ لِعِبَادِهِۦ وَٱلطَّيِّبَـٰتِ مِنَ ٱلرِّزقِ قُل هِىَ لِلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ فِى ٱلحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنيَا خَالِصَةً يَومَ ٱلقِيَـٰمَةِ كَذَٲلِكَ نُفَصِّلُ ٱلأَيَـٰتِ لِقَومٍ يَعلَمُونَ
Say, “Who has prohibited the adornment God has brought forth for His servants, and the wholesome things of sustenance?” Say, “They are for the believers during this worldly life (though shared by others), while they are purely for them on the day of Resurrection. This is how We elaborate the verses for people who understand.”
In his exegesis Mafateeh Al Ghaiyb, Imam Fakhr Ad’Deen Ar’Razi mentions that this verse asks the rhetorical question to turn one’s attention to the fact that God has provided the adornments of The World to be enjoyed. In fact, Imam Ar’Razi states that the adornment mentioned in this verse encompasses anything that is considered to be as such, including anything used to take care of the body, any method of transport, all types of jewelry except for what is not permissible for men, food and drink, getting married, use of cologne and scent, and in a sense anything that can be enjoyed in this life as long as Islamic Law is not broken. In other words, if one has the ability to own a nice home, buy a nice car, eat at the best restaurants, wear nice clothes, go on vacations to new places every time they’re able to, and stay at the nicest hotels, while not forgetting their obligatory duties towards their family and the needy, they would be well within their rights and no one can say anything to them, for they would be exercising permissible luxuries that God has provided on the earth for them to enjoy. The caveat here is that all of these things must remain in their hands and never enter their hearts.
This brings the issue of how to not let materialism encompass the heart. If one constantly indulges themselves in all they can just because they can, it will eventually be a corrupting force for the heart. Sometimes an exercise of self-deprivation should be undertaken just as a self-reminder that “things” are not the most important part of The World. One should not allow themselves to get used to having caprices and desires satisfied every time. Occasional periods of self-deprivation would serve to limit the growth of the monster of the lower self from within, and promote a better spiritual development. One notices this during Ramadan, which is a time at which the normally permissible action of eating and drinking is restricted during the day. Many Muslims observing this month notice themselves having a heightened spiritual awareness and the simple act of restricting food intake ends up helping in their journey of purifying their hearts and elevating their general states. This strategy could be applied to many other aspects in life as a method to keep the lower self of the individual in check. If one finds it bothersome to be denied a material and illusionary aspect of The World, it should serve as a sign that something is seriously wrong within their heart and steps must be taken immediately to purify their state.
How to handle the two abovementioned verses would be to have an understanding of verse 143 in chapter 2 of the Quran, where God says:
وَكَذَٲلِكَ جَعَلنَـٰكُم أُمَّةً وَسَطًا
Thus We have appointed you a middle nation
Imam Ibn Attiya mentions in his Quran exegesis Al Muharrar Al Wajeez Fi Tafseer Al Kitab Al Aziz that some of the scholars mentioned about this verse that the Community of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him did not exaggerate in their religion as the Jews have with their Law, and did not transgress in elevating a Prophet to a Divine status as the Christians have. In other words, for Muslims, religion is meant to bring a balance to one’s life. To obtain and maintain such a balance, one has to be aware of their inclinations and not enter into any extreme states of over- or under-indulgence.
To bring this idea home, one has to look no further than to the Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. One of the companions, Othman Ibn Matth’oon, may God be pleased with him came to the Prophet peace be upon him and had a conversation where he mentioned that he was basically looking to divorce the world, leave eating meat, not use perfume, and basically become and ascetic. The Prophet peace be upon him redirected this companion’s path towards the Prophetic way, which is the middle and balanced way. Giving up The World is not part of the Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, and whoever disregards the Tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him will be prevented by the angels on the Day of Judgement from reaching the Basin of the Prophet peace be upon him.
Islam is a middle way that requires a Muslim to have a balanced approach to The World. God has provided various blessings and luxuries for His servants to enjoy them while they fulfill their mission in The World of getting to know and worship Him. A Muslim should not be deluded by the illusionary nature of The World, and not allow material things to enter their heart. We all came to The World with nothing material, and we all will leave The World with nothing material. It’s not a problem to enjoy the material while we’re here. Just remember that it’s an incidental aspect of being here and not the reason for it. So long as all the “stuff” remain externally on your hand, and not be internalized into your heart – so that if you lose it you will be thankful for having had it but not upset for having lost it – you would be walking in balanced footsteps on the path of the Prophet peace be upon him.
One of the most puzzling things to be taken note of in the Muslim community is this issue regarding matth’habs, which can be loosely translated to mean in English a “school of jurisprudence”. If one turns the clock about 150 years back, this was a non-issue. But now, with the mass ignorance that has swept the Muslim community, and compounded ignorance that some of the overzealous young men have, it’s no surprise that such a question is being posed. It’s quite common to hear one speak of not needing to follow a matth’hab because they’re following the Quran and the Sunnah. Another will say that religion is ease and we have all the opinions now, so it’s OK to take whichever one you like. Some will say that one should weigh the differing opinions and choose the “most correct”. The list of statements of this nature goes on and on, but I think you get the picture.
Before embarking on any subject matter, the first thing that should be cleared out has to do with definitions. For example, if two people are debating about the existence of God, and they have differing definitions of God that are mutually exclusive, then the debate is nonsensical, for they are speaking about different things. This applies to everything.
So what does the word matth’hab actually mean? This word comes from the tri-literal root word tha’ ha’ ba’, which means to go somewhere. So quite literally, the word matth’hab means the path one takes to go somewhere. Based on the Arabic alone, everyone on this planet, not just Muslims, has a matth’hab of some kind. But to restrict the meaning from the Islamic tradition’s point of view, a matth’hab is the path a scholar takes to arrive at a certain conclusion in a jurisprudential (fiqhi) matter. This is only valid in branches of Islamic jurisprudence for rulings arising from texts that have multiple interpretations and meanings, which is most of jurisprudence. This is not the case for the few clear cut matters. For example, no one says that the five daily prayers are obligatory or that the Isha prayer is 4 cycles (rak’ats) according to Imam Abu Hanifah may God have mercy on him. Also, no one says alcohol is forbidden according to Imam Malik may God have mercy on him, or that fasting the month of Ramadan is a highly recommended (Sunnah) according to Imam Shafi’i and Imam Ahmed may God have mercy on them. However, one does say that saying Ameen after Fatiha in an audible prayer behind an imam is silent according to Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Malik, but is audible according to Imam Shafi’i and Imam Ahmed may God be pleased with them. Another example is whether one should pray 2 raka’ats when entering the mosque on Friday after the imam starts giving the sermon. The Maliki position is that it’s forbidden, while the Shafi’i position is that it’s a must. Why the difference? Because they differed on the interpretation of the narrations on this matter from the Prophet peace be upon him.
So what is the deal then? Why did they differ? Why are there only 4 of them? Was it political? Were there others? Etc. etc. etc. I’ll warn you at this point that I’m not going to address all possible points in such a short post, but I’ll try to give the landmarks to help you navigate this subject and gain an appreciation of it. I’m not going to get into the history of formulations, and which Islamic Caliphate adopted which matth’hab, and how each spread. The purpose of this post is to turn your attention to something you may not have really paid attention to, and it’s the fact that you and every Muslim out there is on some kind of matth’hab, whether you like it or not. Because in reality, you’re on some path, and my point here is to make you aware of the path you’re on.
When one claims to be following the Quran and Sunnah, the question that poses itself is: how are you following the Quran and Sunnah? And by making that statement, are you claiming that Imam Abu Hanifah or Imam Malik may God have mercy on them were not following the Quran and Sunnah? I’m not saying you’re “consciously” making this latter claim. But I am most definitely pointing out the implications of such a claim. Plus, if you make this claim, where are you getting the Sunnah from? The answer most typically is “from the Hadith”. But where are you getting those narrations of the Prophet peace be upon him from? Most likely it’s from a collection of either Bukhari or Muslim or Nisa’i that you bought from some bookstore. So the question now becomes: who printed those books? Dar Al Uloom? Dar Al Fikr?
Here is the rub!
You’re getting your Sunnah from Dar Al Fikr printing press. You trust them as the source where you get your Hadith and rest of your Sunnah. That’s interesting. But that’s not where it ends. Now comes the question of understanding the language and syntax being used in the narrations. Are you sure you understood the linguistic and rhetorical meaning of the narration? Furthermore, what was the occasion for the Prophet peace be upon him that prompted him to say what he said? Context is important here and many times it changes the nature of the ruling. Oh right, that collection of Bukhari you got doesn’t come with this kind of information. May be you should go buy Fath Al Bari for Imam Ibn Hajr Al Askalani so you can gain some insight, but in doing that you’ll be trusting Dar Al Kutub Al Islamiya to provide an accurate printing of this collection. Or was it Dar Al Fikr’s version?
Better yet, why not go download ALL the narrations from Shaykh Google? In fact, that seems to be the new matth’hab in this day and age, which sadly enough, many of the young so-called salafis actually follow without realizing it: They’re Googlies!
But brother… Imam Malik said:
إن صح الحديث فهو مذهبي
If the narration (of the Prophet peace be upon him) is authentic, then it’s my matth’hab
OK, correction: Imam Malik may God be pleased with him NEVER said that. That was in fact Imam Shafi’i’s statement, and what he was doing with it is differentiating a foundational principle between him and Imam Malik may God be pleased with both of them. Imam Malik on the other hand said:
كل منا يأخذ ويرد إلا صاحب هذا القبر
From each of us is taken and rejected except of the occupier of this grave (pointing to the grave of the Prophet peace be upon him)
Here is the thing, when the Imams made those statements; they were made to their students, NOT to the general public. Secondly, what Imam Shafi’i may God have mercy on him said was “if the narration was authentic” meant if it was an acceptable narration to be used to make a ruling based on the principles he was using when he was dealing with the different texts. Contrary to what many so-called salafis think, he didn’t mean “if I received an authentic narration”. The two approaches are quite distinct. Thirdly, Imam Shafi’i may God have mercy on him was differentiating that, for him, the authentic solitary narrated tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him would supersede the action of people of Medina, which is a foundational principle for Imam Malik may God have mercy on him. I don’t mean to get too technical here, but this point needs to be made. Imam Shafi’i was a student of Imam Malik and followed his opinions until he went to Egypt where he formulated his own methodology of dealing with the different texts from the Quran and Sunnah. For Imam Malik, the action of people of Medina, meaning the scholars of Medina, was equivalent to a multiple-narrated (mutawatir) tradition of the Prophet peace be upon him. If an authentic solitary narration contradicted with the action of people of Medina, which would also have a narration supporting it, but the narration could be a weak one, the action of people of Medina would take precedence for Imam Malik over the solitary narration no matter how authentic it was. The logic behind this was that, for Imam Malik, the scholars of Medina were the following generation after the companions of the Prophet peace be upon him, and they were taught by them. It’s incomprehensible that all of these Tabi’een would contradict the Sunnah unanimously in the city of the Prophet peace be upon him within a generation of his passing. Moreover, these were the people that were praised over and over by the Prophet peace be upon him.
A more robust example of the power of this Maliki principle of following the actions of people of Medina comes from a debate a man from Iraq tried having with Imam Malik about the measure of a sa’ (صاع), which was used to measure the amount to be given for the poor-due charity (Zakat). Imam Malik may God be pleased with him stopped the man from arguing, asked for the tool used to measure it in Medina to be brought out, told the man that this was the tool the Prophet peace be upon him used in Medina, so how they measured the sa’ in Iraq, which gave a different amount but still valid, was irrelevant to him.
Another example is with the issue of praying with the arms hanging on the side as opposed to crossed in front. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard some so-called salafi claim that Imam Malik’s shoulders were pulled out of their sockets from the beating by the government, and so as a result he let his arms hang on the side, while in fact that wasn’t his opinion and he actually followed the “Sunnah” and crossed his arms. The proof of that is he narrates the Hadith about crossing the arms in his Muwatta’ and so this shouldn’t be disputed.
Well, this is flat out a LIE. And if anyone perpetuates that, they can only be described as a LIAR. It is true that Imam Malik may God be pleased with him narrates the tradition from the Prophet peace be upon him about crossing the arms during prayer. But on the other hand, if you go look in Al Mudawana, which is the very last sayings of Imam Malik may God be pleased with him, as narrated by his student Ibn Al Qasim, who accompanied him for over 20 years, in the very first volume (it has 6 volumes), on page 126 in the small print edition, Imam Malik is asked about holding the hands during the prayer, and he responds:
لا أعرفه في الفريضة
I don’t know about that in the obligatory prayer
What’s more, Ibn Al Qasim further qualifies that statement and says that Imam Malik disliked the holding of ones hands on their chest during prayer! All of this and more is based on the action of people of Medina during the time of Imam Malik may God be pleased with him. The narration about placing the hands in front of one’s body is a solitary one, while the action of people of Medina is considered equivalent to a multiple-narrated one.
Just a note before you get too excited about me quoting a book after rebuking those relying on books from different printing presses, I actually was told this with an unbroken chain of transmission from a teacher who was taught it by another teacher all the way back to Imam Malik. So while I have the book, it’s a crutch that I use for reference and reminder, but it’s not what I truly rely on for my knowledge.
So why would Imam Malik say he doesn’t know about this matter, yet he mentions it in the Muwatta’? Well, let’s go to his biography. A man came to Imam Malik may God be pleased with him and asked him:
Imam, you narrate different traditions from the Prophet peace be upon him, yet you don’t act upon them and don’t use them in your rulings. Why is that?
Imam Malik responded:
This is so the ignoramus like you knows that I left it out of knowledge!
What Imam Malik is basically saying is that he mentioned narrations in his Muwatta’ that he wasn’t using for his rulings or Sunnah just so people don’t come later and make the claim that this narration or that one didn’t get to him. In many cases, the action of people of Medina contradicted those solitary narrations. In fact, when Imam Malik passed away, they found around 50 boxes in his house full of narrations from the Prophet peace be upon him that he never told anyone about and never related. This ridiculous assertion that Imam Malik, or any of the great Imams for that matter, didn’t know a narration relating to jurisprudential rulings is completely unfounded.
So back to the matth’hab issue. As I’ve mentioned before, everyone is following one. The question is, which one? Each one of the 4 Sunni matth’habs was begun by one of the great 4 Imams; Abu Hanifah, Malik, Shafi’i, and Ahmed. None of them was looking to have one of his own. They just happened to be the greatest jurisprudence scholars the Muslims have ever had, and through having a combination of government adopting their school and their students spreading their teachings, they managed to stand the test of time (there were many more that became extinct). Each one of these 4 scholars had a particular methodology when dealing with the Quran and Sunnah that got each one of them on many branches of jurisprudence to have differing opinions. One of the first things I was taught by my teachers before delving into studying the Maliki School was this:
The opinion of one of the Imams does NOT negate the opinion of the others
Meaning, just because Imam Abu Hanifah had a different position on a certain matter, this doesn’t mean that either he or the others were wrong. The 4 matth’habs are like the 4 sides of the Ka’aba in Mecca. If one focuses on the people, it looks like they’re all praying in 4 different directions. But if you look at their final destination, it’s one.
Do you “have” to follow a matth’hab? No one will ever say that. But know that if you’re not following one of the four, you’re following a different one just by virtue of how you chose to conduct your acts of worship. Do you know the Arabic language inside and out? Do you know the pre-Islamic poetry, which is required if you want to know what an Arab meant when he said certain statements or used certain words? Do you know ALL the different narrations of the Prophet peace be upon him and know ALL the Quran? Can you differentiate between which text is absolute and which is restricted? Do you know which one is abrogated and which one is abrogating? Do you have your own axioms (Usool), which you use when you deal with the different texts?
This is NOT a simpleton’s religion so that anyone walking on two feet can approach the tradition and determine for themselves what is considered a Sunnah and a valid ruling and what is not. If you’re a doctor, then focus on your clinic work and let matters of the religion to its people. If you’re an engineer or a computer expert or physicist or economist or are involved in any profession other than Islamic jurisprudence, then leave this matter to its people and focus on your own profession. God did not mean for everyone to become a religious scholar, and He threw different types of abilities in each of us, because that’s how the world can function. If we were all supposed to go through the knowledge path all the previous scholars have gone through, none of us would have the time or energy to do anything else. Besides, the following verse would NOT make any sense if we were all supposed to become scholars:
وما كان المومنون لينفروا كافة فلولا نفر من كل فرقة منهم طائفة ليتفقهوا في الدين ولينذروا قومهم إذا رجعوا إليهم لعلهم يحذرون – سورة التوبة 122
And it does not beseem the believers that they should go forth all together; why should not then a company from every party from among them go forth that they may apply themselves to obtain understanding in religion, and that they may warn their people when they come back to them that they may become cautious?” – Surah At’Tauba 122
If you look at the exegesis of this verse, you’ll find the likes of Imam Tabari and Imam Qurtabi explaining how from every community of Muslims there should be a group that occupy themselves with seeking sacred knowledge so that they may be the ones who teach their people their matters of the religion. This is when the following verse would apply:
فسئلوا أهل الذكر إن كنتم لا تعلمون – سورة النحل 43
So ask the people of reminder if you do not know – Surah An Nahl 43
Will that get you in trouble religiously if you don’t follow a matth’hab? Well, if Imam Shafi’i himself said:
I made Imam Malik a protection between me and God
Where does that leave you?
If you don’t want to follow a matth’hab then that’s your choice. You could be a Googlie or a Dar Al Fikri or a follower of your own intellect, or even a follower of one of the contemporary scholars. If they constantly refer back to a particular matth’hab, then you should realize that you’re also a follower of that matth’hab. But if they’re the type to start weighing opinions and giving their own conclusions on which one is “most correct”, and you follow them then your matth’hab is based on what that scholar says from his own opinions. I personally don’t feel comfortable following a single person and prefer to have my acts of worship and religious affairs to have been examined by thousands of scholars over hundreds of years. Statistically speaking, my chances for error will be the lowest.
One final note, being that I’ve gone longer than I would’ve liked about this subject. When someone says, I’m a Hanafi, or I’m a Maliki, that doesn’t mean that they’re following Imam Abu Hanifah or Imam Malik per se. The four schools of jurisprudence have been developing for over 1200 to 1300 years. Each one of the 4 imams codified a methodology for dealing with the text, and the rulings have been getting examined and worked over for over 1200 years, receiving input from thousands of scholars, for it to arrive to what it has today. Not everything in the Maliki school is the opinion of Imam Malik, and the same applies for the other 3 schools. When someone says “I’m a Maliki”, what they actually mean is “I’m a follower of the school of Imam Malik when it comes to matters of branches of jurisprudence, which is a 1300 year old school that has had thousands of scholars go over its rulings and adjust them and in some cases change them based on the principles of Imam Malik himself”. The same goes for anyone attributing themselves to the Hanafi, Shafi’i, or Hanbali schools. For one to come now and start to audaciously and arrogantly point out that the Hanafis or Malikis or Shafi’is or Hanbalis have it wrong or start weighing one against the other without any guidelines or axioms, and talk about following the Quran and the Sunnah as if these schools don’t follow the Quran and Sunnah, and as if these great Imams were making up rulings from their own minds is at the very least laughable and ultimately so very sad. In fact, those making those types of statements would most probably be whipped and beaten and publicly humiliated had they lived during the times of the salaf for showing such disrespect to these great scholars.
This religion is built on unity in diversity, and to be united doesn’t mean to be uniform. The Muslims had a certain understanding for over 1250 years after the passing of the Prophet peace be upon him, and only over approximately the past 150 years have they become ignorant to this understanding. Sunni Islam has 4 recognized matth’habs, all of which are considered correct and rightly guided in their rulings. Adhering to one means relying on thousands of scholars that have worked out the rulings for that matth’hab over the centuries. Relying on oneself is a free choice one can make, but know that the matth’hab at that point becomes what your own intellect tells you is valid, and becomes what the printing press you got your books from tell you the narration of the Prophet peace be upon him was.
This ignorance has to come to an end, and religious leaders in various communities have an obligation to educate their respective congregations about the vastness of Islam and what beauty it has to offer.