Why are we inconsistent? We say that the last infallible human being was the Prophet peace be upon him. Yet, we treat the Salaf (predecessors) and the Tabi’een (generation following the Salaf) as if they’re infallible. What many Muslims miss on … Continue reading
Disclaimer: This post is quite long as it deals with an extensive subject.
While writing my last post Ash’ari – What’s in a name?, I was getting a rush of many things I wanted to state, but in the interest of keeping it short I opted to not mention much of what I would’ve liked to. Doing so has bothered me a great deal and therefore I decided to follow it up with another more elaborate exposition on this issue of Salafi/Wahhabi and Ash’ari labels. I still won’t get into the issue in exhausting detail, because that would mean I should write a book instead, which I’m not worthy of undertaking such a task. However, I will seek to highlight the main points here, because I’ve been finding that for those who do not study the matter, these labels are confusing more than anything. By that I mean that those who use these terms are confused in themselves and in turn confuse others when they throw these terms around. Just a word of warning, this is one of those topics that I get extra harsh on those Muslims that like to label their fellow Muslims. I have a zero tolerance policy for any Muslim that excludes other Muslims, especially when they do it in the name of Islam.
I do NOT like the term Salafi. It gives the impression to those who hear it that the one claiming to be Salafi is in fact following on the footsteps of the Salaf, i.e. the pious predecessors, while everyone else is not. This could NOT be further from the truth. In fact, in many cases those who claim to be Salafis should be punished for desecrating the name Salafi and giving such a distorted view of Islam and of the Salaf, which ends up pushing many Muslims away and driving non-Muslims to avoid Islam. I prefer the term Googli or YouTubi, because the reality is sadly that’s where they get all their “Islam” from. For these people “true” and “authentic” Islamic information will ONLY come from places like http://www.islam-qa.com or http://www.islamway.com. It’s really interesting that in those two examples that represent others, the first website is run by a well-known Islamic lecturer and author in Saudi Arabia, while the second one is run by a much more extensive group, that has names running for 3 pages, the great majority of which are Saudi or at least educated in Saudi Arabian Islamic universities (there were a couple of names from Al Azhar university though just to be fair!). When it comes to YouTube, the same principle holds. If the Shaykh sitting in front of that camera is wearing the Saudi robe and head piece, that’s confirmation for his uprightness and truthfulness!
So the premise most of those who call themselves Salafi, yet are in fact Googli or YouTubi, is that for any Islamic information to be authentic it must come from Saudi Arabia. Otherwise you can take it and throw it against the wall. Am I the only one who thinks that this is ludicrous? If you think that true Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, and all others are false or misguided or misunderstanding or innovating or anything of that sort, then you should wake up and smell the qahwa. The sad thing is, these people seem to not have anyone really stand up to them because they’re really clever in how they use the Quran and narrations of the Prophet peace be upon him to intellectually terrorize Muslims around them. Sophistical reasoning is the game in town for them. Yet, none of them are well versed in the Tradition in the slightest degree.
What are these terms Salafi/Wahhabi and Ash’ari about? Why do they have a problem with each other so much? And can they just get along?
This issue goes back in time to over 1100 years ago. Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari, who is a descendent of one of the greatest companions of the Prophet peace be upon him, Abu Musa Al Ash’ari may God be pleased with him, was born around the year 260 AH in Basra, Iraq, and died around the year 324 AH in Baghdad, Iraq. He was a great theologian and philosopher during his time, and was one of the main, if not the top, figures of the Mu’tazilite school of theology. This school of theology had the basic premise that the intellect supersedes the transmission of any Tradition, and that a sound intellect and state of an individual are enough to determine what is permissible from that which is not. They had several positions in Islamic creed that deviated from the people of Sunnah, such as that God does not create the actions of people; that His Unity and Uniqueness negated having attributes (despite that these attributes are affirmed in the Quran); that the profligate Muslim is neither a believer nor a disbeliever, but he’s in a state between the two; that those in Paradise will not see God (again despite the verse that says that in the Quran); as well as several other contentions that the Mu’tazilites had. The point for them where all of their system of theology arose is that the intellect can do it all. One really famous Mu’tazilite figure that most Muslims don’t realize was a Mu’tazilite is Al Ja’hith (الجاحظ).
For a period of approximately 40 years Imam Al Ash’ari was the most prominent figure in the Mu’tazilite school. He defended their arguments and attacked others who opposed them by using systems of logic and philosophical argumentations. Most of his writings were of a Mu’tazilite dispensation, which makes sense since most of his lifetime was spent as a Mu’tazilite. The Imam had an intellectual crisis after spending all his years as a Mu’tazilite, and after a short period of thought and reflection he had what can only be described as an opening from God, which was followed by him joining the group known at the time as Al Kullabiyya. He then spent his time using the systems of logic and philosophical argumentations used by the Mu’tazilites to refute their theological positions, to give conclusions such as that the actions of people are in fact created by God not by the people themselves, and that the Quran is the Uncreated Word of God, and that the attributes of God are to be affirmed not negated as they claimed. Imam Al Ash’ari further attempted to show that contrary to their claims, all of the refutations against the Mu’tazilites were consistent with sound logic and intellect. Major figures from Al Kullabiyya were Imam Al Harith Al Muhasibi who authored Risalat Al Mustarshideen (رسالة المسترشدين), Imam Ibn Hiban who authored the Hadith collections, and Imam Al Bukhari who authored the famous Sahih Al Bukhari. Interestingly enough, Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal may God be pleased with him always criticized Imam Al Muhasibi for getting into the philosophy of theology to a large degree. The only reason I can think of why he would do that is because of a personal experience I had when I asked Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah may God preserve him about studying philosophy, and his response to me was to be careful for philosophy brings about heresy.
Finally, Imam Al Ash’ari settled upon the creed that his pious predecessors upheld. Namely, that whatever has been revealed in the Quran and transmitted in a sound narration was to be taken at face value, and to not delve into its interpretation much. However, and this is the point the so-called Salafis don’t like, if the situation arises and it becomes a necessity, where a verse or narration from the Prophet peace be upon him gives an anthropomorphic impression, those who follow Imam Al Ash’ari’s school resort to interpretation, but follow it with the phrase “and God knows best what it means”. This is the core issue of the matter. This is where the so-called Salafi goes as far as excommunicating the Ash’ari from the people of Sunnah, falsely believing that he’s defending the religion. The accusation is that the Ash’ari still uses the intellect as a judge over the transmission, which the Salafi can’t accept despite God saying in the Quran:
أفلا يتدبرون القرآن
Do they not reflect upon the Quran
After this somewhat lengthy introduction, and believe me when I say that I’ve left much out of it in the interest of wanting to talk about the meat of the subject, it’s time to shed light on the major issue the so-called Salafi has with the Ash’ari, and it has to do with the attributes of God.
In the Quran, God says in Chapter 3, Verse 7:
هُوَ ٱلَّذِى أَنزَلَ عَلَيكَ ٱلكِتَـٰبَ مِنهُ ءَايَـٰتٌ مُّحكَمَـٰتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ ٱلكِتَـٰبِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَـٰبِهَـٰتٌ فَأَمَّا ٱلَّذِينَ فِى قُلُوبِهِم زَيغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَـٰبَهَ مِنهُ ٱبتِغَاءَ ٱلفِتنَةِ وَٱبتِغَاءَ تَأوِيلِهِۦ وَمَا يَعلَمُ تَأوِيلَهُ ۥ إِلَّا ٱللَّه وَٱلرَّٲسِخُونَ فِى ٱلعِلمِ يَقُولُونَ ءَامَنَّا بِهِۦ كُلٌّ مِّن عِندِ رَبِّنَا وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُوْلُواْ ٱلأَلبَـٰبِ
He it is Who has revealed unto you (O Muhammad) the Scripture wherein are clear revelations – they are the substance of the Book – and others (which are) allegorical. But those in whose hearts is doubt pursue, that which is allegorical seeking (to cause) dissension by seeking to explain it. None knows its explanation except God. And those who are of sound instruction say: We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord; but only men of understanding really heed
Imam Ibn Katheer may God have mercy on him mentions in his commentary on the Quran Tafseer Al Quran Al Kareem that Imam Ahmed may God be pleased with him narrated that the Prophet peace be upon him heard a group of people arguing and he said:
إنما هلك من كان قبلكم بهذا، ضربوا كتاب الله بعضه ببعض، وإنما أنزل كتاب الله يصدق بعضه بعضا، فلا تكذبوا بعضه ببعض، فما علمتم منه فقولوا، وما جهلتم فكلوه إلى عالمه
Surely the people who have come before you were destroyed by this (argumentation), they negated the Book of God using itself against itself, and verily the Book of God was revealed to affirm itself by itself, so do not negate it by it, and what you comprehended from it you can relate, and what you did not then leave it to its Knower
Imam Fakhr Ad’Deen Ar’Razi in his commentary on the Quran Mafateeh Al Ghaib addresses this verse from several angles. Linguistically, to say that a statement is Muhkam (محكم) means that it does not allow for any other meaning to come to your mind. For example, if I described a table color as “black”, the only color you will imagine is black. Your mind does not accommodate for anything different. Furthermore, black doesn’t come in shades. So you literally cannot imagine anything that would be different than anyone else when it comes to being told that the color of the table is black. On the other hand, to say that a statement is Mutashabih (متشابه), i.e. allegorical or ambiguous, means that it would carry different but equal possibilities, to the point where you could not affirm one over the other. This would of course be the case until it becomes clarified further using a statement that is Muhkam. What’s interesting about this is that as Imam Ar’Razi mentions, people who follow a particular school, will claim that the proofs for their conclusions are Muhkam, while those that oppose them are Mutashabih. For example, those who are of the opinion that the believers will be able to see God from Paradise use Verses 22 and 23 from Chapter 75, where God says:
وُجُوهٌ يَومَئذٍ نَّاضِرَةٌ إِلَىٰ رَبها نَاظِرَةٌ
Faces on that day are illuminated, looking upon its Lord
Meanwhile, those who reject this vision say that it’s a Mutashabih verse and the Muhkam one is Verse 103 from Chapter 6, where God says:
لَّا تُدرِكه ٱلأَبصَـٰرُ
Vision comprehends Him not
There are more examples that Imam Ar’Razi lists (and you can go check them out for yourself if you’d like in his commentary), but I think this one is sufficient to display the point, which is that the methodology of those holding one particular opinion is to claim that the Quranic verse or Prophetic narration they’re using is unambiguous and very clear, while those of the opposing opinion are utilizing interpretations of ambiguous ones. Funny enough, the same people that are being rejected are saying exactly the same thing but in opposite about the first group. So in reality it’s just a big ego trip just to prove that one group is on the truth while the other is on the falsehood. And to see how in the above example both sides are being ridiculous when they assume that their understanding is right while the other is wrong, all one has to do is examine the linguistic use of words in both verses; naathira (ناظرة) and al abss’aar (الأبصار).
Modern Arabs would falsely assume that the two words are synonymous, and therefore would translate both words into any language using that same meaning. However, Arabic is not that simple and has subtle nuances in meaning that only those well-grounded in the language would pick up – read any book on al furooq allughawiyya (الفروق اللغوية) and you’ll see what I mean. In this case, the word أبصر (abss’ar) indicates not only seeing, but also comprehending and encompassing what is seen (تفيد الإدراك), while the word نظر (na’thar) indicates seeing and not comprehending and encompassing what is seen. To give an everyday type of example that most of us have experienced, when someone looks through you and you wave at them but they don’t respond until you scream at them and they finally catch on and realize it’s you and respond and say “I didn’t see you there”. Also, those who sleepwalk seem awake because they usually have their eyes open and in some cases can go all the way to the store and back and not realize what they’re doing. In both of those examples, for the person using their eyes one would use the Arabic word na’thar. To use abss’ar the person in question must be actively engaged and comprehends the thing they’re looking at. To show this differential use of these two words in the Quran go to Chapter 7, Verse 198 where God says:
وَإِن تَدعُوهُم إِلَى ٱلهُدَىٰ لَا يَسمَعُواْ وَتَرَىهُم يَنظُرُونَ إِلَيكَ وَهُم لَا يُبصِرُونَ
And if you invite them to guidance, they do not hear; and you see them looking towards you, yet they do not see
Even if you don’t understand the differential use of the words abss’ar and na’thar, you still conclude from this verse alone that they can’t both have the same meaning since God is using one to affirm a quality of sight while the other is being negated. So when it comes to seeing God from Paradise, both groups’ understandings can actually be combined. Meaning, the believers will be able to see God from Paradise, but they still won’t be able to comprehend Him as they would comprehend anything else using their vision.
But let’s get back to the verse from Chapter 3 regarding the allegorical verses. The Prophet peace be upon him ordered us to simply believe in those verses but not delve into them and what they mean. Furthermore, as the majority of scholars have determined based on where the end of the statement comes within the verse, those who delve into the allegorical verses are the ones who have doubt and sickness in their hearts. There is a narration in the Tradition that Imam Malik may God be pleased with him had a man come to him and ask about Verse 5 from Chapter 20:
ٱلرَّحمَـٰنُ عَلَى ٱلعَرشِ ٱستَوَىٰ
This verse is translated in different ways depending on how the translator interpreted the verse:
The Beneficent One, Who is established on the Throne
The Beneficent God is firm in power
The All-Merciful has positioned Himself on the Throne
The Most Gracious God rose over the Mighty Throne
The Compassionate on the Throne is established
The question this man asked to Imam Malik may God be pleased with him was: how did God do it? In other words, what does this verse mean exactly? There are two versions for how Imam Malik may God be pleased with him responded. After lowering his head for a while, and getting hot and sweating heavily, he raised his head and said in one version:
الاستواء معلوم والكيف مجهول والسؤ ال عنه بدعة وما أراك إلا مبتدع فأنيحوه عني الساعة
al istiwa’ is known (i.e. linguistically we know what it means), and the how is unknown (i.e. what it actually means when it’s related to God is unknown), and asking about it is an innovation, and I see that you are nothing but an innovator, so get him out of my sight.
The other response of Imam Malik may God be pleased with him was:
The interpretation is in reciting it (i.e. it means what God intended and its explanation is by reciting it as is).
Either response of Imam Malik is a display of how the pious predecessors treated verses in the Quran or Prophetic narrations dealing with the attributes of God, which are allegorical or ambiguous in meaning. In those occasions where God or the Prophet peace be upon him used words that would typically mean something anthropomorphic, the pious predecessors didn’t delve into any of it and left it alone. They knew it couldn’t mean something anthropomorphic about God, because He says in Chapter 42 Verse 11:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
The Arabic word in the verse ka’mithlihi (كمثله) uses two tools used in the Arabic science of balagha (بلاغة) for describing likeness. The letter kaf (ك) is used for likening something to another to a great degree. The use of mithl (مثل) is used for likening something to another to a small degree. So linguistically, what God is saying in the above verse is that nothing is like Him in either a small or a great degree, i.e. nothing can be compared to Him in any way whatsoever. This verse alone makes the approach of anyone towards verses in the Quran or Prophetic narrations to be a conceding approach of the meaning to God while acknowledging that it can’t mean anything anthropomorphic. And this is where the modern so-called Salafis have a problem with Ash’aris.
The Ash’ari creed’s approach to ambiguous verses in the Quran and Prophetic narrations regarding the attributes of God was not antithetical to the approach of the pious predecessors. Rather, they recognized that to not delve into their meanings would be the proper way to handle them. However, as Islam started to spread to Christian lands, and as people from different dispensations started to have questions for Muslims about God, and as Muslims had to deal with people who did not speak the Arabic language, something had to be done when it came to the ambiguous verses in the Quran and Prophetic narrations dealing with the attributes of God. For example, when God says in Chapter 48 Verse 10:
يَدُ ٱللَّهِ فَوقَ أَيدِيهم
One would not literally translate the word yad into English as hand, but rather as a metaphor for power, i.e.:
The power of God is over theirs
Another example is with the verse I’ve already mentioned:
ٱلرَّحمَـٰنُ عَلَى ٱلعَرشِ ٱستَوَىٰ
The Ash’ari way to explain this would be to use the translation:
The Beneficent God is firm in power
Instead of saying anything else relating to God becoming established on the Throne or sitting on it or anything of that sort.
So for the Ash’aris the reason they interpreted such verses in the Quran and narrations from the Prophet peace be upon him was not due to free choice in the matter. It was a matter of necessity. In other words, they were compelled to do so out of need to translate or explain to either non-Muslims/non-Arabs, or to Muslims who raised those questions up due to doubt in their hearts. This was also to uphold the principle in the Quran of:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
Which was repeated again in a different way in Chapter 112 Verse 4:
وَلَم يَكُن لَّهُ ۥ كفُوًا أَحَدٌ
And never has there ever been anyone co-equal to him
The idea was to use this strategy to stop the mind from imagining something unbecoming of God. This was also not done out of thin air without evidence. The Arabic language is quite poetic and most words carry metaphorical meanings other than the outward literal meaning. For example, the word istiwa’ (استواء) has about 14 meanings in the Arabic dictionaries, which I’ve come across. One of them is the outward meaning “to establish” or “to sit”. However, there are others such as to affirm in power, to take over, to complete a process, etc. The Ash’ari position on such a word when it’s attributed to God is that it can’t mean the same thing outwardly when it’s applied to humans, i.e. to sit. Therefore, they move to other meanings and use them when attempting to explain or translate, but still concede what it actually means to God’s knowledge by saying:
الله أعلم بمرادها
God knows better what is intended in meaning
This goes with other Quranic verses or Prophetic narrations as well. When one sees the word “hand” attributed to God, the Ash’ari position is that they should immediately move it to the metaphor rather than the literal meaning of hand as it is applied to humans. This is done to a great extent in Arabic everyday speech, such as when one says:
حكومة البلد في يد رجل معين
The power of government in country xyz is in the hand of a particular person
Also, if you see the word “coming” attributed to God, the Ash’ari position is that it possibly refers to His command, i.e. the command of God is coming, rather than God Himself in His essence coming, which would be a characteristic of human beings.
All of I have mentioned above and much more is based on a very deep linguistic understanding of meanings and syntax in the Quran. It also brings it knowledge of pre-Islamic poetry and metaphorical use of words as the Arabs understood them. Interestingly enough, the companions didn’t get into all of this because to them Arabic wasn’t even a science to be studied as it has become afterwards. It was natural to them and didn’t require much effort because their eloquence was a side effect of the culture. Nowadays we have to go and study these things to gain a glimpse of an appreciation of the linguistic nature of the Quran, which for the companions was immediately apparent. As the poet says:
لست نحويا يلوك لسانه
ولكن سليقيا أقول فأعرب
I’m not a grammarian chewing his tongue
I’m naturally speaking eloquently
Where the modern day so-called Salafis differ with Ash’aris is that they reject this approach of interpretation and claim that doing so is a negation of what God says in the Quran about Himself. So they affirm the literal meanings, but add a caveat statement – as it befits His majesty (كما تليق بجلاله). For example, when they see the word hand, they affirm that God has a hand. But would say: as it befits His majesty. Meaning He has a hand, but it’s not like your hand. Another example is with the verses on seeing God from Paradise. They say: we will see God using our eyes (and I’ve actually seen them point at their eyes). Any interpretation would be a deviation in one’s creed and in fact would take one out of the folds of people of Sunnah.
To give you an idea of the extent of their taking the literal meanings of these verses I’ll share what I learned when I went to school as a young boy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When we came across the verse mentioning the word yad, which has the literal meaning hand, our class teacher said:
And surely God has a hand, and both of His hands are right hands for God is the most beautiful being and He can’t have a left hand, so they’re both right hands
When we studied the narration of the Prophet peace be upon him in commenting on Verse 30 from Chapter 50, where God says:
يَومَ نَقُولُ لِجَهَنَّمَ هَلِ ٱمتَلَأتِ وَتَقُولُ هَل مِن مَّزِيدٍ
On the Day when we will say unto Hell: are you filled? And it will say: is there any more to add?
The Prophet peace be upon him is narrated to have said that:
يضع الله قدمه في النار فتقول: قط قط
God will put forth His foot in Hell and it will say: enough! enough!
So now God doesn’t just have two hands (that are both right hands), but also a foot. And that’s not where it ends, because in Verse 42 from Chapter 68 God says:
يَومَ يُكشَفُ عَن سَاقٍ وَيُدعَونَ إِلَى ٱلسُّجُودِ فَلَا يَستَطِيعُونَ
On the Day a leg will be bared and they (the unbelievers) will be called to fall in prostration but they will not be able to
OK. So now God has two right hands, a foot, and a leg. What else? If I were to go through all the Quranic verses that have an ambiguous use of attributes being given to God, and take the literal meaning of each as it’s applied to humans, God will have hands, feet, legs, a face, and sits on a massive Throne. If I add to it the Prophetic narrations, God also walks, runs, laughs, asks questions as if he doesn’t know the answer, has to look for Adam and Eve peace be upon them when they hide, and most of the time he’s in the sky, but comes down in the last third of every night. All of this is derived from the approach of the modern day so-called Salafis. But where does this come from?
Well, it’s an approach that’s about 700 years old, the main proponent of which was Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him. He based this on many understandings of his regarding what God has intended from us as Muslims when we approach the Quran, one of which was that we must accept everything on face value as it is said without any exceptions. According to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, to interpret the ambiguous verses metaphorically would necessitate the negation of their outward meaning, and therefore would be a form of major deviance, if not a flat-out disbelief in what God has revealed (in reality, this is a problem in philosophy that I’ll address at a later point, but it has to do with substance theory and bundle theory). The response to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him was that he misunderstood the point of interpretative approach. Namely, that it wasn’t to negate the outward meaning of the ambiguous use of certain attributes as they are mentioned in relation to God. Rather, it was to negate a meaning that is carried upon that which applies to humans. In other words, if it’s an anthropomorphic meaning, it has to be rejected. This was not based on some whim or caprices of the scholars that preceded Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him and all of them; it was based on the verse where God says about himself:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
Very few scholars came after Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him and tried to propagate his type of understanding. However, they were rejected by the consensus of the scholars. One of the major works dealing with how these attributes were fallaciously understood in an anthropomorphic sense is a book by Imam Abdul Rahman Ibn Al Jawzi titled Daf’ Shubah At’Tashbeeh Bi’Akaff At’Tanzeeh (دفع شبه التشبيه بأكف التنزيه). Imam Al Jawzi shows in this work how all of the ambiguously associated attributes to God can be understood linguistically in other ways, which are in line with a proper understanding of Arabic syntax and metaphor use, while not negating what God is saying about Himself.
Imam Ar’Razi in his commentary on this verse actually mentions an individual (Muhammad Ibn Isaac Ibn Khuzayma who wrote a book called التوحيد – monotheism) that was quite similar in his approach to the modern day so-called Salafis who want to affirm the attributes God mentions in a literal sense and at the same negate it with the self-contradictory sophistical reasoning. For those who are interested you can look it up for yourself and enjoy an interesting response from Imam Ar’Razi to an ignoramus as he described him.
The question that poses itself for those who are in insistent on taking the literal outward meaning of an Arabic word that normally means something when it’s attributed to humans, is why they reject the move to one of the other multiple meanings of the word, which would at least get one to move away from anthropomorphizing God, while at the same time affirming what God says about Himself. What’s more puzzling is their claim that this is what the pious predecessors did. The audacity of such a claim is astounding. Interestingly enough, they add this insidious caveat at the end of their literal understanding and say “as it befits his majesty – كما تليق بجلاله”. There is something in logic that points to the fallaciousness of a statement called “self-contradiction”. If I claim that someone is a happily married bachelor, people would laugh. If I point at something and say it’s a round square, my intellect would be questioned. To attribute an anthropomorphic quality to God and then say it’s not anthropomorphic is ridiculous. None of the pious predecessors ever said that phrase those modern so-called Salafis use. When people started asking about the ambiguously associated attributes with God found in the Quran and Prophetic narrations, what became known later as the Ash’aris (those following the creed of Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari) or Matouridis (those following the creed of Imam Abu Mansour Al Maturidi may God be pleased with him that had a similar approach to Imam Al Ash’ari), went the route of interpretation so as not to have the questioner form an imaginary anthropomorphic image of God in his/her mind.
If one looks at a verse that uses the word “hand” associated with God, and it’s used in a certain context, but decides to ignore that context, and vehemently affirms that God has a hand, and it in fact is a hand, but then says it’s not like a human hand and it’s as it befits His majesty, this would mean that this person is either ignorant of the Arabic language, or is having some form of dissociation in his/her brain pathways, which the neuroscientist in me wants to study because I find that quite interesting. In fact, my hypothesis is that it’s a combination of ignorance of Arabic sciences, as well as a neurological symptom of a much deeper condition possibly caused by being dropped on the head as a child!
So, what did the pious predecessors say when it came to God’s attributes?
Abu Bakr As’Sidig may God be pleased with him said a beautiful statement:
كل ما يخطر في بالك فالله خلاف ذلك
Anything that you can imagine in your mind, God is other than that
He may God be pleased with him also said:
العجز عن إدراكه إدراك والخوض في ذات الإله إشراك
Inability to comprehend God is comprehension of God and delving into matters regarding the essence of God is a form of polytheism
Also, there are the statements I’ve mentioned from Imam Malik when he was asked about Verse 5 from Chapter 20 and his first version of the responses was: al istiwa’ is known (i.e. linguistically we know it means), and the how is unknown (i.e. what it actually means when it’s related to God is unknown), and asking about it is an innovation, and I see that you are nothing but an innovator, so get him out of my sight. The other response of Imam Malik may God be pleased with him was: the interpretation is in reciting it (i.e. it means what God intended and its explanation is by reciting it as is).
I’ve travelled around and asked Muslims coming from diverse backgrounds, and whenever the topic of the attributes of God comes up, the first response I hear is the Verse:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
This is the guiding principle for the majority of Muslims when talking about God to anyone. They usually don’t go further than that. But if the necessity arises, where they have to explain or interpret or translate for any reason, they always move towards utilizing other valid meanings for the words rather than affirming the literal one commonly used for humans then negating it at the same time with the ridiculous statement “as it befits His majesty – كما تليق بجلاله”. This is the way not only the majority of regular Muslims, but also the majority of Sunni Muslim scholars dealt with this topic. And this is the point of contention between the Salafi/Wahhabi crowd and the Ash’ari crowd. The sad part about this is that the modern so-called Salafis go as far as saying since, for example, Imam An’Nawawi was an Ash’ari, he’s not from the people of Sunnah. What a calamity?! If Imam An’Nawawi is not from the people of Sunnah, who is from the people of Sunnah then? Right now Al Azhar scholars say they are Ash’aris. Are they not Sunni then? What about scholars from Al Qarawiyeen University? How about the majority of scholars such as Al Baiy’haqi and As’Seyooti and Ibn Hajr Al Asqalani and Al Qurtubi and As’Subki and many more. It’s literally about 90% of Sunni scholars and Muslims in the world and throughout history that claim the creed led by Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari on Islamic theology to be their creed.
Just a final thought after having gone through all of this. I find the attitude of modern so-called Salafis to be hypocritical. On the one hand they go around preaching and bothering other Muslims that follow the scholars and follow different matth’habs and talk about how people should be following the Quran and Sunnah and ignore the scholars. They keep telling those who disagree with them that just because one of the four Imams said something doesn’t make it binding because they’re men and they make mistakes. They use statements out of context made by the different Imams such as the one by Imam Shafi’i where he said:
إن صح الحديث فهو مذهبي
If the narration is authentic then it’s my matth’hab
And they basically annoy their fellow Muslims over all kinds of jurisprudence issues. But when it comes to creed, they blindly follow one scholar, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, who is not infallible and since he’s a human being is subject to making mistakes, such as the one regarding how to handle the ambiguous verses on the attributes of God. The Arabic proverb says:
أخطاء الكبار كبار
The mistakes of great people are great
If you’re a modern day so-called Salafi reading this, and are boiling because you think I’m attacking Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him, seek refuge with God from your devil that’s whispering to you such a ridiculous assertion. I’m not in a position to judge a great scholar such as Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him. I’m simply relating what other Sunni scholars have said about the matter. He made ijtihad in a matter and was wrong according to about 90% of Muslim scholars, so he’s singly rewarded by God instead of doubly. To preserve his legacy and keep it all positive, his mistakes should be covered over. But when you propagate his mistakes, it forces him to be exposed to those who hate him and allows them to attack his legacy, which I’ll be one of the first to defend. First order of business in defending Imam Ibn Taymiyyah may God have mercy on him is to stop the ignoramus from spreading his mistakes among the masses.
Finally, there are three general types of Muslims that involve themselves in this type of discourse; ones who can’t comprehend much of this theological discussion (and being able to read doesn’t mean being able to comprehend), ones who somewhat comprehend this topic, and ones who really do get it. In what is considered to be the most famous narration of the Prophet peace be upon him, when the archangel Gabriel peace be upon him came and asked about Islam, Iman, and Ihsan, the Prophet peace be upon him addressed creed under the topic of Iman and said:
أن تومن بالله وملائكته وكتبه ورسله واليوم الآخر والقدر خيره وشره
That you believe in God, the angels, the revealed Scriptures, the messengers, the Last Day, and the Divine Decree good and bad
In reality, this is all one needs for creed, and any discussion about God is discouraged because it’s an attempt with a limited intellect and finite brain to understand the unlimited and infinite God. The Prophet peace be upon him said:
تفكروا في خلق الله ولا تتفكروا في ذات الله
Reflect upon the Creation of God and do not reflect upon the essence of God
However, if the situation arises where a discussion can’t be avoided, the guiding principle is given by God Himself in the Quran when He says:
لَيسَ كَمِثلِهِۦ شَىءٌ
There is nothing like a likeness of Him
In my estimation, the modern day so-called Salafis are of the type of Muslims that God did not give the intellectual ability to engage in theological discourse. The proof of that is in their self-contradictory statements and ignorance of the Arabic language and its sciences coupled with a blind tribal-allegiance to a single scholar. Hence, they should recognize their inabilities and not try to tread water in an ocean they can’t swim, for this would be following the teaching and narration of the Prophet peace be upon him:
رحم الله امرئ عرف قدر نفسه
God has mercy on an individual that knows their true measure
Final Disclaimer: whether you call yourself Salafi, Ash’ari, or Maturidi, at the end of the day you’re of the people of Sunnah just like the others you don’t attribute yourself to. So stop judging who is a Sunni and who is not and have some humility and fear of God!
That and God knows best.
One of the terms that are thrown around by some Muslims that like to label other Muslims is “Ash’ari”. Whenever I hear this term, or any term for that matter, being used to label any Muslim, my first reaction is revulsion, followed by the question: what do you mean by “Ash’ari”? I ask this question not to necessarily get an answer from the person. Rather, I’m looking to turn their attention to their manifested ignorance of the term they’re using. Before you form an idea that I’m siding with anyone, I ask the same question when someone uses the terms “Wahhabi”, “Salafi”, “Sufi”, or any other term for that matter. It’s typically a sign that an individual doesn’t know what a term means when they liberally use it to label many of their fellow Muslims, which is sadly just part of the calamity of this age; manifest ignorance and Googlism to the highest degree.
For those who are interested, I’ll take a few lines to display why when I ask the question “what do you mean by Ash’ari?”, I’m doing it to expose this person’s ignorance to himself.
In brief, Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari was a great scholar born in the year 260 AH in Basra, Iraq, during a time of great scholarship and erudition. During his time the Mu’tazilite group of scholars was the most elite and powerful. In fact, they got to such power at one point that the Muslim ruler at the time having adopted their school of thought began to persecute any scholar that rejected their school. For those who are not versed in this part of Muslim theological history, the Mu’tazilites was a group of scholars who put the intellect (Al Aql) as a judge over the transmission (An Naql). For example, if they read a verse or came across a transmitted narration from the Prophet peace be upon him, and it contradicted their intellectual understanding and logical processes, they would reject the verse or narration from the Prophet peace be upon him. On the surface their methodology and reasons for rejection of many things seemed completely logical to many of their followers. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, the Sunni scholars were able to logically refute their fallacious claims. For a great example refutation read Al Hai’da (الحيدة) by Imam Abdulaziz Al Kinani, who debated the most feared Mu’tazilite theologian of his time, Bishr Al Mareesi, and refuted him to a point that was laughable (l actually did laugh quite a bit when I read it!).
I will point out here that the Mu’tazilites utilized fear tactics and went as far as killing scholars that disagreed with them and ended up putting Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal in prison and tortured him because he would not adopt their theology. In fact, Imam Ahmed was given the title Imam Ahl As’ Sunna Wal Jama’a because of his courageous stance against them when literally all other Sunni scholars were too afraid to speak up. Their most commonly known theological claim is that the Quran was created, rather than being an attribute of God. The classic question they used to determine whether they persecuted a scholar was: what do you say about the Quran? To answer that it is the uncreated word of God meant torture, prison, and possible death. To answer that it is created by God meant safety from their tyranny!
The purpose of this short post is not to address all the different positions on certain theological issues that divided Muslims into the different theology schools. The issue regarding the Quran was one thing. Another contention that up to this day Muslims are, for a lack of a better word, fighting over is how to understand the ambiguous verses that deal with the attributes of God. If God wills it, I will write on this topic in the future. For now, what I’ve mentioned above was just a very ridiculously brief pre-emption to what I wanted to mention about Imam Abu Al Hasan Al Ash’ari.
Imam Al Ash’ari was the most prominent theologian for the Mu’tazilites for about 40 years. In fact, one could say he was their head theologian that theorized and laid down many of their arguments. He then had what can only be described as an opening from God, in which all the fallacies in their arguments became manifest and clear to him. This caused him to rebel against the Mu’tazilite school and to spend a second and brief period of his life attacking them. In fact, he was using the Mu’tazilite school premises on many of their arguments to refute them. Finally, he entered his third, and what would be his last, phase of his theological evolution. This is when he settled on the creedal formula and theological understanding of God and His nature that was adopted by the pious predecessors. May be in a future post I’ll get into all the different schools and where they differed and based on what evidence they differed on. However, for now, and for the past and the future, I’ll keep quoting the narration of the Prophet peace be upon him:
من قال لا إله إلا الله دخل الجنة
Whoever says there is no God but the One True God, has entered Heaven
I’ll also quote the verse from the Quran where God says in Chapter 4, verse 48:
إن الله لا يغفر أن يشرك به ويغفر ما دون ذلك لمن يشاء ومن يشرك بالله فقد افترى إثما عظيما
Surely God does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, and forgives what is besides that to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever associates anything with God, he devises indeed a great sin
As Imam Al Qurtubi mentions in his work Al Jami’ Li Ahkam Al Quran, this verse unequivocally makes it clear that so long as a person doesn’t associate partners with God, then he is in a position to receive forgiveness from God over any other sins he commits. This would include mistakes or misunderstandings in the branches of theology and creed that deviate from the consensus of the Muslim scholars over the past 1400 years. Unfortunately, when Muslims throw labels around, it serves as a first step to excommunicate fellow Muslims from being Sunni, which then can be followed by kicking them outside the folds of Islam, and that’s exactly how the Kharijites functioned historically.
Am I deluded to have thought that all Muslims are in fact Muslims? Why is it that so many of our fellow Muslims are so eager to excommunicate the rest from Islam? With all the problems we as Muslims have nowadays, and all the division we are already suffering through, it can be described as nothing less than a capital crime to label each other with names and titles that we don’t even understand. In fact, I’m sure if the Commander of the Believers Umar Ibn Al Khattab may God be pleased with him was around today, he would beat most of us with his stick for our behavior, and no one could blame him.
So if anyone tries to throw the label of Ash’ari on you, or on anyone else for that matter, just ask the question: what do you mean by Ash’ari?
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.