To Matth’hab or Not To Matth’hab – Why Is It A Question?

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.

Mohamed Ghilan

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