The Obligation of Adhering to a Single Madhhab in All its Rulings

[By Maulana Zameelur Rahman]

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The prevalent Deobandī and Subcontinent position on the obligation of adhering to one school of jurisprudence (madhhab) in all its juristic rulings (masā’il) has recently come under increasing scrutiny. We will argue in this paper that this position is not only more sound in our context, but is also supported by strong positions from within each of the four madhhabs and the stronger position of the Hanafī madhhab, with some of the early scholars having quoted consensus.

As the discussion is relatively lengthy, readers who wish to avoid the details may skip the technical discussion and read the brief summary presented at the end.

The view that we will support can be summarised in the following points:

1. It is necessary for laypeople and scholars who are not mujtahids to make taqlīd of mujtahids[1]. Moreover, following from the third century of Hijrah, the number of mujtahids of all degrees became very few and far between[2]. Hence, the vast majority of people from that era onwards fall into this category.

2. After the codification of the madhhabs in approximately the fourth century of Hijrah, it was necessary for laypeople to adhere to a single madhhab in all its rulings. There are two principle reasons for this:

a. If a layperson was given the option to adopt any position he likes from the various madhhabs, it would lead to freeing him from religious obligation (taklīf), which forms the very foundation of a Muslim’s relationship to the Sharī‘ah. The reason for this is that the codified madhhabs generally address all small and major issues. On any particular issue, therefore, a muqallid would be exposed to multiple differing viewpoints. Hence, if given the option to choose between them, he will be at liberty to select an opinion based on his desires. He may even consider something harām at one point and halāl at another. In other words, dīn becomes a thing of play, and religious obligation (taklīf) becomes bereft of any meaning.

This dangerous implication has been expressly mentioned or alluded to by a number of major early authorities, including the early Shāfi‘ī mujtahids known as the “Ashāb al-Wujūh,” al-Juwaynī (419 – 478 H), al-Ghazālī (450 – 505 H), Ilkiyā al-Harrāsī (450 – 504), al-Arsābandī al-Hanafī (d. 512 H), al-Jīlī (470 – 541 H), al-Māzirī (453 – 536 H) and Ibn al-Munayyir al-Mālikī (620 – 683 H). Their statements or the opinions transmitted from them will be quoted below.

Furthermore, if given the option of selecting any opinion one likes, a person may unknowingly fall into talfīq[3] which is invalid by consensus[4]. Moreover, it may open the door to selecting opinions outside of the established madhhabs, leading to following shādhdh[5] opinions, something that has been strongly condemned by the ‘ulamā’[6]. These further implications have been alluded to, in particular, by al-Māzirī. Hence, the obligation of following a single madhhab is a precautionary measure against these negative repercussions.

b. If given the option of following any madhhab one wished on different issues, a major inconsistency will arise in a layperson’s juristic methodology. Each Imām and his madhhab has a distinct methodology and distinct points of reference to earlier proto-madhhabs. If a layperson followed different madhhabs on different issues, it would lead to contradictions in the basic principles on which the rulings are based. For example, if someone followed the Hanafī madhhab in one ruling which is based on a particular principle and the Shāfi‘ī madhhab on another ruling which is based on a contradictory principle, a contradiction will arise in the legal methodology, even though both issues may apparently seem distinct[7].

‘Allāmah Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī explained this point in his Fayd al-Bārī. A translation of this passage can be found in the appendix below [at end of article]. Qādī ‘Iyād (476 – 544 H) also mentions this and al-Juwaynī may have alluded to it, as will be discussed below.

It is important to note here that when we speak about the necessity of restricting oneself to a single madhhab, we do not mean the views of only the founder of the madhhab, but the collective input of all the mujtahid scholars of that madhhab. The reason is that the developed madhhab represents the conclusions of one unified pattern or school of juristic thought. The prohibition of taking from multiple mujtahids in the later period, therefore, applies only to inter-madhhab disagreements and not necessarily intra-madhhab divergence. See the statements of Abu l-‘Abbās al-Nātifī (d. 446) and Ibn Hamdān al-Hanbalī (603 – 695 H) quoted below[8].

Furthermore, the ruling under discussion applies to normal circumstances. In exceptional cases, where there is extreme difficulty in acting on the dictates of one madhhab, the ruling may change.

3. In the first few centuries of Islām, before the codification of the major madhhabs, a common person was permitted to adopt the views of different mujtahids on different issues. In this period, non-mujtahids were generally limited in the number of mujtahids they had access to and limited in the resources at their disposal for attaining firm knowledge of the view of a particular mujtahid on a certain issue of jurisprudence. As a result, the laypeople of this time were not able to seek out the opinions of scholars who held the easiest opinions on different issues[9]. In other words, unlike the situation in the later period, a layperson of this time would not generally be aware that there are multiple differing opinions on a particular issue. On the contrary, when he receives a verdict, that may be the first and only opinion he finds on that issue.

Furthermore, a layperson would normally refer to the mujtahids of a particular town, like Makkah, Madīnah or Kūfah[10]. Scholars belonging to a particular town were generally unified in the broad contours of their juristic methodology. As a consequence, a layman would not be subject to a great degree of inconsistency in legal opinions and methodology even if he were to ask multiple mujtahids.

The permissibility of adopting the views of multiple mujtahids was, moreover, based on necessity. Laypeople generally lacked access to a single mujtahid or school for verdicts on all issues of jurisprudence. Hence, to restrict them to a single mujtahid would not have been possible. Imām al-Juwaynī and others have made reference to this point. In the present time too, if it is extremely difficult to follow one madhhab due to lack of access to all positions of the school or extreme ignorance, the same rule will apply.

After the codification of madhhabs, it became necessary for a non-mujtahid to adopt one madhhab, and follow it in all its rulings. The layperson in this time in most places of the Muslim world would be exposed to the known opinions of the different madhhabs. Hence, giving legitimacy to adopt the view of any madhhab on any issue would lead to great inconsistency in the juristic methodology of a muqallid. The potential for selecting the easier opinions and playing with dīn became much more real.

At this stage, a muqallid was exposed to multiple opinions in single issues, as opposed to the earlier period when the laypeople were generally not exposed to multiple opinions on single issues. Hence, giving him the option to choose between them will free him of religious obligation (taklīf), and allow him to select opinions based on his desires. Moreover, a muqallid is only qualified to assess which madhhab he feels is in general superior. He does not have the ability to adjudicate between them in individual issues.

Hence, as al-Ghazālī explicitly mentions, and others have suggested, that the only reason why a muqallid would follow multiple mujtahids in the later period is in following his desires (tashahhī), even if he does not realise it.

4. Finally, it is necessary to have conviction that the madhhab one follows is correct, as stated by Fakhr al-Dīn Muhammad ibn Mahmūd al-Hanafī (d. ca. 570 H) and others. This is achieved by accepting the words of trusted scholars or based on widespread recognition of the madhhab or other such indications, as mentioned in the statement of Imām al-Ghazālī quoted below. The reason for this obligation is that the rules of Sharī‘ah depend on one’s belief in their veracity. If one is in doubt or does not have conviction that what he is following is correct, the rules of Sharī‘ah cannot correctly be implemented.

According to the scholars of juristic theory, the correct view in a point of ijtihādī difference is in reality only one, although all mujtahids are on a right path and are rewarded for their ijtihād; and they, as well as their followers, will be excused for any error in ijtihād that falls within the parameters of legitimate disagreement. Hence, one must feel confident that the path he has chosen, i.e. his madhhab, is correct in relation to the others, which he believes are incorrect on the points where they differ with his madhhab, while acknowledging the possibility that the reverse may be true.


Statements from the Early Scholars of the Hanafi School

Statements from the Early Scholars of the Shafi’i School

Statements from the Early Scholars of the Mālikī and Hanbali Schools

“The Layperson has no Madhhab”?

Conclusion and Summary of Main Points

[Footnotes to this Page]

[1] “Non-mujtahids” in this context refers to those who have not reached the level of “ijtihād” in all its forms, whether absolute ijtihād or restricted ijtihād, though they may be learned scholars. Tāj al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Subkī (727 – 771 H) said: “Taqlīd is to adopt a view without [detailed] knowledge of its evidence, and it is binding on the non-mujtahid.” (Jam‘ al-Jawāmi‘, Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, p. 121) Al-Sayf Al-Āmidī (551 – 631 H) said: “It is binding on the layperson and the one who does not have the qualification of ijtihād – even though he has acquired some sciences that are taken into consideration for ijtihād – to follow the view of the mujtahids and to accept their fatwas according to the verifiers from the Usūlīs.” (Al-Ihkām fī Usūl al-Ahkām, Dār al-Samī‘ī, 4:278)

[2] As explicitly stated by Qādī ‘Iyād in the passage from him quoted below [later].

[3] Literally meaning “to join together”, talfīq is to make taqlīd of two or more Imāms in one issue in such a way that the resultant action is regarded as invalid by all the Imāms whose taqlīd was made.

[4] ‘Allāmah Qāsim ibn Qutlūbughā (d. 879 H) said: “The ruling produced from talfīq is invalid by the consensus of the Muslims.” (Al-Tashīh wa l-Tarjīh ‘alā Mukhtasar al-Qudūrī, Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, pp. 122-3)

[5] Marginal and fringe opinions which were rejected and condemned by the overwhelming majority of ‘ulamā’. Examples include the permissibility of mut‘ah marriage, the permissibility of selling one silver coin for two on spot and the permissibility of musical instruments.

[6] It is reported from Imām al-Awzā‘ī (d. 157 H) that he said: “The one who selects the rareties of the ‘ulamā’ exits Islām.” (Usūl al-Iftā’ wa Ādābuh, Makataba Ma‘ārif al-Qur’ān, p. 206)

[7] The scholars of Usūl discuss a particular situation known as ‘adam al qawl bi ‘l-fasl (the nonexistence of an opinion of distinction). If there are two issues, ‘A’ and ‘B’, and a group of scholars took opinion ‘X’ in both A and B and a second group took opinion ‘Y’ in both A and B, but there is no scholar who held the opinion of X in one and Y in the other, this is known as “‘adam al qawl bi ‘l-fasl”. Now, would it be permissible for a later scholar to adopt an opinion which makes a “distinction” between the two, i.e. opinion X in one and opinion Y in the other? The answer given by the author of Usūl al-Shāshī is that if the ruling given on B by both groups is based on the same principle on which their opinions on A was based, then it is not permissible, as to do so would be to adopt two contradictory principles. (Usūl al-Shāshī, Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, pp. 213-4)

[8] Imām Ahmad al-Wanshirīsī al-Mālikī (d. 914 H) said: “What is understood from the force of the speech of these imāms – may the pleasure of Allāh be upon them – is that that which is prohibited is seeking out the easiest opinions of all the madhhabs, not a single madhhab. The verification is that there is no [apparent] distinction, but that which they made the reason for the prohibition, in that it will lead to relinquishing [religious] responsibility in every issue that is differed upon, only becomes completely apparent in the first [i.e. seeking out the easiest opinions of all the madhhabs] not the second [i.e. seeking out the easiest opinions within a madhhab]; because a matter is often prohibited in one madhhab by agreement and permissible in another by agreement or disagreement, so if we permitted seeking out dispensations from [all] the madhhabs it will lead to what they said, because what the madhhabs [all] agree upon is few. Seeking out the easiest opinions of one madhhab is not so, as it has fewer negative repercussions than the first.” (Al-Mi‘yār al-Mu‘rib, 12:32)

[9] Ibn al-Munayyir al-Mālikī of the seventh century mentioned this point. See his quote below under the section, “The Layperson has no Madhhab”?

[10] It is mentioned in Sahīh al-Bukhārī, for example, that the people of Madīnah would follow exclusively the verdicts of Zayd ibn Thābit.

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