From the History of the Mālikīs – 2 How the Mālikī School of Law Spread

From the History of the Mālikīs 

2 How the Mālikī School of Law Spread

Part One: The Initial Spread of the Mālikī Jurisprudence 

As we previously said, Imam Mālik was in Madinah. The significance of Madinah is that it is the city in which the Diin was first established, and Imam Mālik never left the city. He received his knowledge by direct transmission from hundreds of scholars, who themselves had received an unbroken and direct line of transmission from the Prophet صلّى الله عليه وسلّم‮.‬. In addition, the people of Madinah practiced the ʿamal, which was a prophetic behavior that was part of their the normal daily life.

As a result, Imam Mālik recognized that what was normal daily life in Madinah was also the most correct way of life for the entire Ummah. He therefore placed upon himself the duty of recording and codifying this Madani way life, so that it would be a model for the entire Ummah.

To Imam Malik, the ʿamal ahlu-l-Madinah was an accurate representation of what had been passed down from the Sunnah of the Prophet صلّى الله عليه وسلّم; passed down from father to son by way of the first three outstanding generations whom the Prophet صلّى الله عليه وسلّم held in high esteem. As Rabīʿah said  “A thousand from a thousand”, that is to say, thousands of great-grandfathers passed the ʿamal to  thousands of sons, who in turned passed it on to a thousand of grandsons, up until the time of Imam Mālik.

In Madinah, during the time of the Imam Mālik, a man could be called upon to report about or demonstrate behavior that had come directly to them from the time when The Prophet صلّى الله عليه وسلّم and the first three generations were alive in the city. This was the main thing that attracted so many of Imam Mālik’s student to come and study with him. It was Imam Mālik’s proximity to the source of the Sunnah that these students found most attractive.

No other city had such proximity to the Sunnah. After all, wasn’t Madinah the city to which The Prophet صلّى الله عليه وسلّم emigrated and established the Sunnah? Wasn’t it where he returned to live out the rest of his life after the conquest of Mecca and in turn was also buried there? No other city in the Ummah had such proximity to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad صلّى الله عليه وسلّم as did Madinah al Munawwarah.

The students of Imam Mālik came from Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Iraq.  Because of the the high regard throughout the Ummah for Imam Mālik’s scholarship, he drew  large numbers of students from these places, who in turn became highly respected scholars in those regions from which they came.

Imam Mālik’s book al Muwaṭṭa became a standard read, and as a result, it was widely circulated throughout the Ummah. His students, many of whom who became “little Mālik’s” were prolific writers. They also produced many volumes about Mālikī law. The most famous among these texts of law was the Mudawwanah of ʿAbdus Salaam at-Tanūkhī, more famously known as Ṣahnūn. He was the student of the student of Imam Mālik, Ibn al Qāṣim.

Among the more famous students who sat under the direct tutelage of Imam Mālik, and who aided in the broad spread of Mālikī jurisprudence was the Egyptians: ʿAbdullah ibn Wahb and ʿAbdur Rahmān ibn al-Qāṣim al-ʿUtqī, the Tunisians: Al Bahlul ibn Rashīd, ʿAbdullah Ibn Farrukh, Asad Ibn Al Furat who wrote the first Mudawwanah, and the Andulusian: Yaḥyā ibn Yaḥyā al Layth. These were the scholar’s who themselves produced scholars that spread the Mālikī school far and wide.

The Nature of the Four Madhhabs of Islam and Their Relationship with the Present Time


The Nature of the Four Madhhabs of Islam and Their Relationship with the Present Time

by Shaykh Abdal Haqq Bewley

All Muslims agree that the basis of Islam is the Book and Sunnah and almost all Muslims agree that if someone follows the teachings of any one of the four orthodox madhhabs of Islam – the Hanafi Madhhab, the Maliki Madhhab, the Shafi‘i Madhhab and the Hanbali Madhhab – they will certainly be living within the parameters of the Book and Sunnah. The great majority of Muslims are affiliated to one or the other of these madhhabs but for almost all of them this affiliation takes place for purely geographical reasons and very few know very much about the nature of the madhhab they belong to. There is a common perception that the madhhabs are all more or less the same and only differ in respect of slight legal points such as where you put your hands in the prayer and other things of that nature, but that does not really explain why there should be these four madhhabs at all. In order to discover the reason for their existence, it is necessary to look at each of them and find out how and why they came into being in the first place.

The first of the four madhhabs in historical terms is the Madhhab of Abu Hanifah who was born in roughly 80AH and died in 150AH. The salient fact about Imam Abu Hanifah, rahimahullahu ta’ala, was that he did not live in Madinah, where the deen had originally been established; he lived in Iraq and his school developed in Iraq. He grew up in Kufa, was educated there and lived most of his life there, first as a merchant, then as a student and finally as a teacher. Kufa was one of the two great Iraqi cities of the time and Iraq was home to many different religions, sects and beliefs, because apart from containing the capital of the recently defeated Persian empire, it was also the home of various other ancient civilisations. Syriac Christians were dispersed throughout it, and they had schools there in which Greek philosophy and the ancient wisdom of Persia were studied. In other words, at the time we are speaking of, Iraq was a melting pot of diverse races, cultures and beliefs and a place rife with confusion and disorder. There were frequent clashes of opinion on the subject of politics and religion. The Shi‘a and Mu‘tazilites stemmed from there, and there were Kharijites in its deserts.

Along with this was the fact that comparatively few Companions had travelled from Madinah and settled in Iraq. Indeed, it was an explicit policy of the second Khalifah ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه, to discourage Companions with knowledge from leaving the Hijaz. He did this in order to prevent  knowledge of the deen becoming too dispersed. For this reason, most of the great men of knowledge among the Muhajirun and Ansar stayed within the confines of Madinah. Two notable exceptions who did go to live in Iraq were Ali ibn Abi Talib, karama’llahu wajhah, and Abdallah ibn Mas’ud,  but the overall number was in fact very small. What that meant, in real  terms, was that the people of Iraq had very limited direct access to the Sunnah, because there were very few exemplars of it who came to them. All these factors meant that the Iraqi environment in which Islam was beginning to take root in the first and second centuries after the Hijrah was a very different one from that of Madinah in which the deen had originally been established.

Another corollary development was that, due to these multifarious foreign influences, many situations arose which were quite alien to anything confronted in the earliest days of Islam. Nevertheless, it was, of course, necessary for the establishment of the deen that solutions should be found for these new contingencies, so that they could find their place within the compass of Islam.

This was the environment within which the Iraqi school developed, and which caused it to have the particular form which came to characterize it so clearly. As we have seen, for historical, geographical and social reasons, the situation in Iraq was markedly different from that of the Hijaz where the deen had originally been established and taken root. This meant, as we have noted, that new situations were continually arising, and it was a question of how to apply the Book and Sunnah to these novel circumstances in such a way that the deen would remain unchanged. As far as the Book of Allah was concerned, of course the Iraqis had the same access to it as the Muslims in the Hijaz and those in everyother place to which the deen had spread. The difference was in their access to the Sunnah.

We have already noted that direct knowledge of the Sunnah in Iraq was limited because of the small number of Companions who moved there. On the other hand in Sayyidina ‘Ali and ‘Abdallah ibn Mas‘ud were two of the most knowledgeable Companions and two of those closest to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and so their direct access to the Sunnah, although very limited in extent, was at the same time of the very highest quality. This led to the distinctive approach to the Sunnah which characterized the Iraqi school, and in turn even coloured their attitude to the Qur’an itself. Because of the irreproachability of their direct sources to the Sunnah, they were quite rightly supremely confident concerning what had reached them through them, but because of the limited scope of what they received there were many gaps in their knowledge.

In the period we are talking about, there was already much forgetfulness, and it was even the case that instances of hadith forgery were beginning to be recorded, so that, rather than relying on sources about which they were not sure, the scholars of Iraq preferred to come to a judgement based on the use of their own reason within clearly defined parameters based on the knowledge of Book and Sunnah about which they did have absolute certainty. In this, they were in fact following the example of Ibn Mas‘ud himself who refrained from attributing statements or actions to the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم, unless he was absolutely sure they were correct, and in cases where he was not certain, would prefer to exercise his own opinion rather than falsely ascribe something to him.

This led to a way of looking at texts which was typical of the Iraqi school, whereby they would examine the reasons behind the judgements contained within them. It was almost as if they did not depend on the outward words, but would instead, look to the meaning behind them and what was intended by the statement involved, and would then apply that analogically to the new situation confronting them. This methodology of implementing the Book and Sunnah, which developed in Iraq, caused the Iraqis to be known as the people of ra’i or opinion. Another of the characteristics of this school was that its adherents did not confine themselves to the deduction of rulings to be applied to actually existing cases, but also posed hypothetical questions and gave judgment on them as well on the basis of their own reasoning, with the objective of pre-empting situations which might well occur in the future.

The great Iraqi scholar Ibrahim an-Nakha’i is generally credited with being the founder of the Iraqi school of fiqh we have been talking about, but there is no doubt that its greatest exponent and the man who gave it his name and who became most closely associated with it in the minds of the Muslims throughout history was Abu Hanifa an-Nu‘man. He started out as a silk merchant but soon devoted himself to learning and became a student of Shaykh Hammad ibn Sulayman with whom he studied all the Islamic sciences. There is no doubt that Abu Hanifa was a man of the utmost integrity and was imbued with intense fear of Allah which informed all his acts and decisions. He was also extremely generous and a man characterised by great self control. It is, however, for his scintillating intellect and his ability to apply it to the questions which confronted him for which he is justly most remembered and which led to him becoming the leader of the madhhab of the people of opinion.

His profound thinking led to him penetrating to the core of the questions presented to him. This meant that he did not stop at the outward meaning of texts, but went beyond that to their intentions. He would study a text, seeking the causes of any judgment it contained, examining the implications of its words, phrases and intentions and the circumstances surrounding it. Once he became satisfied about its underlying cause, he used analogy based on that and took that very far indeed. His general attitude is well summed up by a simile he coined. He said, “One who learns hadiths but does not have fiqh can be likened to a chemist who makes up remedies but does not know what they cure until the doctor comes and tells him. Anyone who learns hadiths but does not grasp their true implications is just like that.”

An illustrative example of the way Imam Abu Hanifa’s mind worked can be seen in the famous account of his meeting with Muhammad al-Baqir, the great-great-grandson of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. It seems that the imam met al-Baqir when visiting Madinah near the beginning of his scholarly career. It is reported that al-Baqir said to him, on the basis of what he had heard of the direction things had taken in Iraq, “Are you the one who changes the deen of my grandfather and his Sunnah through the use of analogy?”

Abu Hanifa replied by saying, “I seek refuge with Allah!” and told al-Baqir that he respected him in the same way that his forebear, the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, had been respected by his Companions during his lifetime. Abu Hanifa then said to al-Baqir, “I am going to present you with three questions to answer. The first is: Who is weaker, a man or a woman?”

Al-Baqir replied, “A woman.

What is a woman’s share in inheritance?” continued Abu Hanifa.

A man has two shares and a woman one,” responded al-Baqir.

That is what came from your great grandfather,” said Abu Hanifa. “If I were to have changed his deen by analogy I would have said that a woman should have two shares and a man one because she is the weaker of the two, but I have not.”

Abu Hanifa then asked al-Baqir, “Which is better, the prayer or fasting?

The prayer,” he replied.

That is what your great grandfather said,” agreed Abu Hanifa. “If I were to have changed his deen, I would have said using analogy that, because the prayer is better, a woman who has finished menstruation should be ordered to make up the prayer and not the fast.”

Abu Hanifa then put his third question. “Which is the more impure, urine or sperm?

Urine is more impure.

If it was true that I had changed the deen of your great grandfather through the use of analogy I would, on account of that, have made people do ghusl after urinating rather than for the emission of sperm. I seek refuge with Allah from altering the deen of your great grandfather through analogy.

In this instance Imam Abu Hanifa used his incisive, analytical intellect to uphold the orthodox position of Islam regarding these matters, but it gives us a clear indication of the way that he, in another situation when the position about a matter was as yet undecided and so open to interpretation, would use his mind to come to a decision about it. This great mental agility which characterised Imam Abu Hanifa was recognised by Imam Malik who said of him, “If he had gone to these stone columns and formed an analogy showing that they were made of wood, you would have thought that they were made of wood.”

This brings us to the school of Imam Malik, rahimahullahu ta’ala, who was, in chronological terms, the second of the four imams, living from 93AH to 179AH. Just as when examining the madhhab of Imam Abu Hanifa we discovered that what we were really looking at was the school of Iraq, the methodology used by the early Muslims of Iraq to establish what constituted the Book and Sunnah in that region, so we find that Imam Malik, who lived all his life in Madinah al-Munawwarah, the “Illuminated City”, was in fact the foremost exponent of the school of Madinah and passed down to posterity the methodology used by the people of Madinah in their implementation of the Book and Sunnah. The situation of Madinah was completely different to that of Iraq. Madinah was the place where much of the Qur’an was revealed, the place where Allah’s deen became established as a living social and political reality. It was in Madinah that Islam became flesh and bones and took on its definitive, final form.

So whereas in Iraq it became necessary to work out how Islam could be implemented in the new situation, in Madinah it was simply a matter of preserving unchanged what was already there. In the time of Imam Malik in Madinah, people were doing the prayer, making hajj, doing wudu’, collecting zakah, carrying on every aspect of their lives as Muslims in exactly the same way that they had been doing without interruption from the time of the Prophet less than a century earlier. And, moreover, there had been conscious effort expended to ensure that the original teaching and practice of Islam remained unaltered in Madinah, borne out by the injunction of Sayyidina Umar ibn al-Khattab رضي الله عنه, forbidding knowledgeable Companions from leaving the city, precisely so that the body of knowledge and practice which constituted Islam in action in the world would remain whole and intact and would not become dispersed and fragmented. In Madinah, therefore, transmission of the deen was immediate and direct. As Malik himself said, “If you want knowledge, then take up residence (i.e. in Madinah). The Qur’an was not revealed on the Euphrates (i.e. in Iraq).

This leads us to the vital difference between the Iraqi and Madinan schools. In Iraq, as we have seen, it was a question of taking the available knowledge of the Book and Sunnah, understanding what was intended, and applying it in the new environment, giving rise to what became known as the school of ra’i (opinion). In Madinah the Book and Sunnah were established as an integral element of the community – daily life in Madinah was the Book and Sunnah in action – so in Madinah it was simply a matter of absorbing and taking on the practice of the people there which had been preserved and transmitted unchanged, with the conscious collaboration of two generations of brilliant scholars, to be inherited and encapsulated and passed on to all subsequent generations by Imam Malik ibn Anas, rahimahullah, as the school of the ‘amal ahli’l- Madinah (the practice of the people of Madinah).

It is also acknowledged unanimously by the early ‘ulama of Islam that no bid‘ah (innovation) entered Madinah during the first three generations, meaning the generation of the Prophet and his Companions, their successors and their successors, the Followers of the Followers, one of whom was Imam Malik. So up until the time of Imam Malik nothing extraneous to the Deen, with regard to the Deen, entered into the environment where they lived. In other words, what Imam Malik received and what he passed on to his students, and down to our own time in his great work al-Muwatta, was nothing other than the whole body of the Deen that had come down through those three generations to him in Madinah al-Munawwarah. Imam Malik himself expressed the nub of this matter very cogently in a famous letter he sent to al-Layth ibn Sa‘d in which he wrote:

Allah Almighty says in His Mighty Book: The Outstrippers, the first of the Muhajirun and Ansar. (9:100). Allah Almighty further says: So give good news to My slaves, those who listen well to what is said and then follow the best of it. (39:18). It is essential to follow the people of Madinah. The Hijrah was made to it, the Qur’an was sent down in it, and the halal was made halal and the haram was made haram there. The Messenger of Allah was among them and they were present when the Revelation was revealed. He instructed them and they obeyed him. He imparted the Sunnah to them and they followed it until Allah caused him to die and chose for him what is with Him, may the blessings of Allah and His mercy and favour be upon him always. Then after his death, the Muslims followed those from among his community who were given authority after him. When something happened which they already knew how to deal with, they did so. If they had no knowledge of the matter in question, they asked about it, and then followed the best line they could. In this, they were helped by having very recently been in personal contact (with the Prophet) … Then the Tabi‘un after them travelled this path and followed those sunan. If there is a practice which is clearly acted upon in Madinah, I do not think that anyone may oppose it because of the inheritance that the people of Madinah received which no one else can lay claim to. If the people of any other city were to say, “This is the practice in our city,” or “This is what those before us used to do,” that would not be permissible for them.

What is very evident from all this is that, for the Madinans, the Sunnah was defined by what had been done much more than what had been said. It was a matter of transmitted action rather than transmitted text. Zayd ibn Thabit رضي الله عنه, the famous Companion, stated, “When you see the people of Madinah doing something, know that it is the Sunnah.” This is a very important distinction in the light of developments, which, as we shall see, were shortly to follow and which were to meld together the two terms Sunnah and hadith and make them virtually indistinguishable one from the other. Understanding this point is pivotal to grasping the nature of the Madinan school and its methodology. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab stated on the mimbar, “By Allah Almighty I will make it difficult for a man who relates a hadith different from it (the ‘amal).” Ibn al-Qasim and Ibn Wahb said, “I saw that in Malik’s opinion ‘amal (transmitted practice) was stronger than hadith (transmitted statement).” Malik said, “The people of knowledge among the Followers would sometimes transmit a hadith which had been conveyed to them from others and then say, ‘We are not ignorant of this, but the ‘amal which has come down to us from the past is other than it.'”

Malik said, “I saw Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr ibn ‘Amr ibn Hazm who was a Qadi. His brother was ‘Abdullah, a truthful man who knew a lot of hadith. When Muhammad gave a judgment in respect of which a hadith had come contrary to it, I heard ‘Abdullah criticise him, saying, ‘Hasn’t this and this come in this hadith?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ His brother said to him, Then what is wrong with you? Why don’t you give judgment by it?’ He said, ‘Where are the people with respect to it?’ meaning what is the consensus regarding the actual practice in Madinah? He meant that the practice is stronger than the hadith regarding it.” Ibn Mahdi, who died in 186 AH and was one of the greatest hadith scholars of his time in Madinah, said, “It may be that I know a hadith on a subject and then I find that the people of the courtyard do something different from that. Therefore it becomes weak in my estimation.” And finally there is the famous statement of Rabi‘a, “I prefer a thousand from a thousand – in other words the established practice in Madinah – over one from one – meaning a singly narrated hadith – even if it is sound, because one from one can strip the Sunnah out of your hands.

So from what we have seen it is clear that for Imam Malik and the people of Madinah, applying the Book and Sunnah basically constituted taking on unchanged the body of lived practice which had come down to them in their city uninterruptedly from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and his Companions,  ajma’in. We now arrive at the third of our madhhabs, that of Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi‘i, rahimahullahu ta’ala. Imam ash-Shafi‘i was born in Makkah in the year of Imam Abu Hanifa’s death, 150AH, and pursued his early studies there under teachers steeped in the fiqh and tafsir of the great Companion ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Abbas, رضي الله عنه, which was to prove a strong influence on Imam ash-Shafi‘i later in his life. Although he reached a high level of proficiency in his studies, he was not satisfied with what he had learned and travelled north to Madinah to sit at the feet of Imam Malik, whom he was to consider the “Luminous Star” among the many teachers under whom he studied. He stayed with Imam Malik until 179AH when he died, although it is known that during that time he visited other places for short periods in search of knowledge.

After Imam Malik’s death, Imam ash-Shafi‘i was appointed Qadi in Najran by the governor of Yemen. He remained there for five years, but his uncompromising implementation of justice and his condemnation of all injustice made him unpopular with those in power, and they slandered him to the khalifah accusing him of rebellion, and he was sent to Baghdad in 184AH for trial. He exonerated himself, but did not return to Yemen, remaining in Iraq and studying with Muhammad ash-Shaybani, the close follower of Imam Abu Hanifa. After a couple of years, he returned to his birthplace, Makkah, and it was there that his career as a teacher really started. He remained in Makkah for almost ten years, and then visited Baghdad for the second time in 195AH, staying there on this occasion for about two years. He returned again to Baghdad in 198AH, and then went on from there in 199AH to Egypt where he spent the remainder of his life, dying in Fustat on the last day of Rajab 204AH at the age of 54.

The reason for dwelling for some time on the varied movements of Imam ash-Shafi‘i during the course of his life is because it has a considerable bearing on the development of the method by which he determined what constituted the Book and Sunnah. Both Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik remained comparatively stationary throughout their lives, which meant that the source of their knowledge was geographically limited and therefore quite consistent in its approach to the deen. As we have seen Imam ash-Shafi‘i, on the other hand, travelled a lot, and because of this, saw many different approaches taken to the deen. In fact, it is true to say that he learned the fiqh of most of the schools existing in his time.

He started by learning the fiqh of Ibn Abbas in Makkah. He went on to learn the fiqh of Imam Malik in Madinah. He learned the fiqh of al-Awza’i, the school of Syria, from his companion, ‘Umar ibn Abi Salam. He learned the fiqh of Imam Abu Hanifa, the Iraqi school, from his follower Muhammad ash-Shaybani and he learned the fiqh of al-Layth ibn Sa‘d, the faqih of Egypt. As we have seen, there was a considerable difference between the Madinan and Iraqi schools, and this was equally the case with all the other schools, with the result that quite distinct judgements were being made about almost identical issues in different areas. Because of his wide learning Imam ash-Shafi‘i was well aware of these differences, and it became clear to him that, unless a uniform system of coming to judgment was devised and imposed, there was a very real danger of Islam becoming divergent. He saw that it might rapidly become changed out of all recognition from the original teaching as it had been implemented by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and the first community in Madinah.

In order to combat this clearly perceived threat – that Islam might suffer the fate of previous revelations by becoming changed and adulterated from its original form due to increasingly divergent rulings on virtually identical situations – Imam ash-Shafi‘i devised a brilliant system to ensure uniformity of legal decision-making and to prevent any further dispersal and dilution of the original teachings of Islam. He did this during his long stay in his birthplace, Makkah, to which he returned after his first visit to Iraq, and it is significant that he based his system on his earliest studies of the knowledge and methodology of the great Companion, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him and his father.

The teaching of Ibn ‘Abbas was firmly based on his explanation of the text of the Qur‘an for which he had received explicit permission from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. The Qur‘an is, of course, a book, the Book, and for that reason a major element in the methodology transmitted from Ibn ‘Abbas was textual analysis involving detailed examination of the text itself. This involved a concern with the mujmal (unspecified) and mufassal (detailed), the mutlaq (unrestricted) and muqayyad (qualified) and the khass (specific) and the ‘amm (general). In the hands of Imam ash-Shafi‘i, this type of textual analysis produced a new discipline for fuqaha which had not previously existed although all the elements of it had been present.

This detailed examination of the written word formed the core of the methodology for which Imam ash-Shafi‘i became famous and was the cornerstone of his system for ascertaining an authoritative and consistent standard for what constitutes the Book and Sunnah. He founded a systematic method of deduction which allowed judgments to be made on the basis of sound textual evidence, and did not accept the latitude in the derivation of judgments which, as we have seen, had existed up until then. Under Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s system, no opinion could be expressed which could not be traced to an authenticated text, and so the possibility of innovation in the Shari’ah became vastly reduced. In this rigorous reliance on texts, however, lie both the strengths and weaknesses of Imam Ash-Shafi‘i’s superlative system.

It certainly fulfilled its intended task of halting the accelerating break-up in the homogeneity of the practice of Islam in the various areas of the Muslim world of that time and ensured a consistency of practice which was to safeguard the integrity of Islam right down to our own time. Indeed, it is true to say that it is largely due to Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s superlative system that we owe the extraordinary uniformity of Islamic practice throughout the world, so that even today 1200 years later, wherever a Muslim travels in the world, despite all the geographical, ethnic and cultural differences which undoubtedly exist, there is no significant difference in any of the basic practices of Islam. This is a tremendous achievement. Another thing is that, because of the need for trustworthy textual evidence on which to base actions and judgments, it became necessary to collect together as many sound traditions from the Prophet as possible. This in turn led to the great hadith collections and all the sciences of hadith which were devised to ensure their authenticity, and it is significant that nearly all of the great hadith collections were put together by scholars who were adherents of the Shafi‘i madhhab.

However, what this also meant was that both the Book and Sunnah became restricted in a way that had not previously been the case. Until that time, the Sunnah had consisted in the transmitted practice of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and the first community of Muslims in Madinah. In many cases, there was textual corroboration of the actions concerned, but in many other instances the practice in question had simply been passed down from one generation to the next without there being any textual justification for it. Thus, the Sunnah was an organic pattern of behaviour, consisting of the implementation of Allah’s guidance in the Qur’an by the first Muslims under the direction of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم, covering every aspect of life. This was passed down as a direct inheritance by two generations from those who brought it into being. The Sunnah was, in broad brush strokes, the way the first generations of Muslims had lived, and continued to live, their daily lives, particularly in Madinah. They made a continual and conscious effort to avoid admitting any change into what had come down to them, and the men of knowledge among them spent their lives preserving it.

So up until Imam ash-Shafi‘i came along, the Sunnah was in many cases simply the way the Muslims lived their lives protected by men of knowledge whose lives were dedicated to ensuring that no change occurred in what they had received from the past. After Imam ash-Shafi‘i however, and his insistence on textual justification for action, the Sunnah became more and more identified with hadiths. This meant that unless there was an actual text explicitly authorising a particular action it was no  longer considered to be part of the Sunnah, even if it had been practised by the Muslims from the earliest times. Not only that, but the rigour of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s system of textual analysis meant that even the actions that did have textual justification were tempered by the way the texts were interpreted so that in some instances the actions themselves were changed by Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s unique methodology and this applies to the Qur‘an as well as hadith.

Two examples, one from the Book and the other from the Sunnah, will illustrate how the practice of the Muslims was affected by the application of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s methodology. We find in the Qur‘an in Surat an-Nisa the ayah: 43:

O you who believe! Do not approach the prayer when you are drunk, so that you know what you are saying, nor in a state of major impurity – unless you are travelling – until you have washed yourselves completely. If you are ill or on a journey, or any of you have come from the lavatory or touched women, and you cannot find any water, then do tayammum with pure earth, wiping your faces and your hands. Allah is Ever-Pardoning, Ever-Forgiving.

In reference to the words “or touched women” the Muslims, before Imam ash-Shafi‘i devised his system, had always understood them to have a sexual connotation. In other words, it was only necessary to renew wudu after some form of sexual contact with women. However, the word used here for “touch”, lamasa, can mean simply just that, without any sexual contact being implied. Applying his method of rigorous textual analysis, Imam ash-Shafi‘i reached the conclusion that the broadest possible interpretation must be allowed and, therefore, ruled that any touching whatsoever between men and women was sufficient to break wudu. This constituted a considerable change in practice from an accepted understanding – that what was intended by the ayah was sexual contact – which had been acted upon universally by the early Muslims, to an interpretation based on textual analysis which involved a completely different judgement than the one previously implemented.

With respect to the Sunnah an example of a similar alteration of practice can be seen in connection with the prayer. We find in Sahih al-Bukhari from ‘Ubada ibn as-Samit, that the Messenger of Allah  صلى الله عليه وسلم, said,“There is no prayer for anyone who does not recite the Fatiha of the Book.” The early Muslims all accepted that the Fatiha must be recited in every rak‘ah of the prayer. There was, however, an almost universal acceptance that the recital of the Fatiha by the imam in the audible prayers was sufficient to cover the recitation of everyone following him. But after the application of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s system to the text of the hadith quoted above, it was judged necessary for every individual doing the prayer to recite the Fatiha in every rak’ah, and because of that, the imam was required to pause for a while after his own recitation of the Fatiha to allow those following him to do the same. This again introduced a practice which had not been performed by Muslims anywhere before Imam ash-Shafi‘i.

So we can say that in his exposition of the rulings of the deen, in other words his implementation of the Book and Sunnah, Imam ash-Shafi‘i relied almost entirely on the outward and apparent indication of texts. He disapproved of both the Iraqi and Madinan approaches to fiqh, because the former tended to be based on the principle perceived to be governing a particular transmitted ruling and depended on the state of the faqih making the judgment and of the latter because of its tendency to accept transmitted rulings which had no textual authority to support them. As we have seen, Imam ash-Shafi‘i based his system almost entirely on texts and took a more literal and objective approach to them, causing him perhaps to err on the side of caution.

He took upon himself the task of setting out the principles for a consistent methodology of deduction to provide guidance for all those qualified to make judgments in the deen and to formulate the criteria involved. He set out a universal system founded on firm principles, not contingent upon  opinion or precedent or the resolution of hypothetical questions, and succeeded in devising a methodology for all subsequent scholars and judges to follow. His influence on the later development of Islam cannot be overstated, and it is fair to say that the Islam we have inherited today is in no small part due to the system which Imam ash-Shafi‘i formulated twelve centuries ago.

We now come to the last of the four Imams who have given their names to the madhhabs followed by the Muslims, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. There is, however, a marked difference between Imam Ahmad and the other imams. The three earlier imams all definitely represented a particular methodology: Imam Abu Hanifa the Iraqi school of opinion; Imam Malik the Madinan school of direct transmission; and Imam ash-Shafi‘i his own system based on textual analysis. Imam Ahmad, on the other hand, cannot be said to have devised a particular methodology of fiqh. The great historian of Islam, at-Tabari, for instance, did not even include the madhhab of Imam Ahmad when discussing the early fuqaha. He said  of him: “He was a man of hadith not a man of fiqh.”

Qadi ‘Iyad states in his great book Tartib al-Madarik: “He was less than an imam in fiqh although he was brilliant in investigation of its sources.” And there were many other great ‘ulama who did not consider him the founder of a school of fiqh. Indeed, he only became an imam in fiqh after his death and that was because some of his students collected together his statements, fatwahs and opinions, forming a legal corpus which was posthumously ascribed to him. Sometimes the transmissions from him varied considerably and sometimes they agreed. We will understand more of this ambivalence about his status as a faqih if we look at his life and how he studied and taught during the course of it.

He was born in Baghdad in Rabi‘ al-Awwal 164AH, half a generation after Imam ash-Shafi‘i, making him, historically speaking, the last of our four imams. This fact and the fact that he was born in Baghdad have a considerable bearing on the course his life and studies were to take. By the time Imam Ahmad came into the world and was brought up in Baghdad, the ‘Abbasid caliphate was thoroughly established and Baghdad had become a truly cosmopolitan imperial capital, a world away from the Madinan environment in which Islam had originally been established. By Imam Ahmad’s time, Persian elements had come to dominate Arab elements and the sophistication of Persian civilisation was in the ascendance in general throughout the Muslim world. The cities of Islam were inundated with differing nations and races, and texts of all kinds were being translated from Persian, Syriac, Greek, Latin and other languages into Arabic. The result of this was that the more or less homogenous cultural environment of early Islam had become fragmented as all these different influences became part and parcel of the Islamic world. Add to this, the clash of earlier religious traditions together with the attempts of their adherents to mould Islam towards their own world views and the result was an ambience, both religious and physical, which would have been all but unrecognisable to the first generations of Muslims.

This was what confronted Ahmad ibn Hanbal as he grew up in the ‘Abbassid capital, and as a pure-hearted, intelligent, deeply pious youth, he was left with the quandary of how, in the light of all the sophisticated deviation he was facing, he could regain something of the light, clarity and simplicity of the formative early days of Islam. The way he went about achieving his aim has already been indicated in the quotation from at-Tabari – he became a muhaddith. In order to get as complete and detailed a picture as possible of the life of the first community, he devoted himself to accumulating the maximum possible number of reports from that time, not only from the Prophet  صلى الله عليه وسلم, himself, but also from the Companions, ajma‘in.

So from very early in his life, Imam Ahmad chose the men of hadith and their method, and dedicated himself to it, to the extent that it certainly appeared that he had taken the path of the hadith scholars rather than that  of those who combined fiqh with hadith. In his search for hadiths Imam Ahmad travelled widely throughout the heartlands of Islam and may have been the first muhaddith to collect the hadiths of every region of the Muslim world and record them. Another thing which marked him out was his use of the pen in his compilation of hadith. In spite of his well known prodigious memory, Imam Ahmad wrote down the hadiths he collected. The end result of all this hadith recording which started when he was sixteen years old and continued through much of his life was his great Musnad which contains almost thirty thousand hadiths.

For Imam Ahmad, the Musnad was like a great painting in which the myriad reports it contained were the individual brush strokes, which together made up the most accurate portrayal he could possibly convey of what the deen of Islam had been like in its original, pristine condition. It was this picture, made up of sayings of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and reports and decisions from the Companions, ajma’in, which was the bedrock on which Imam Ahmad built his life and on which he based all his judgments. In as far as he had a methodology for deriving judgments from these sources, he depended upon Imam ash-Shafi‘i under whom he studied and who was one of his most revered teachers. When he met Imam ash-Shafi‘i, he learned the rules for sound understanding of the Book and reports of the Sunnah, comparison of textual sources, knowledge of the abrogating and abrogated, and in general how to deduce secondary rulings from the basic sources of the Shari’ah. So in this respect, he was certainly not the same as the other three imams, each of whom had their own very distinct methodology for deriving judgments in the deen.

Another reason, perhaps, why Imam Ahmad was made the founder of a new school of fiqh was because of his absolutely exemplary character which inspired many people to take him as a model during his own lifetime. There is no doubt that all four imams were impeccable in their personal behaviour and all of them had superlative qualities of character that marked them out among their contemporaries. Imam Ahmad, however, had a reputation for saintliness which outshone all of them. From his earliest youth, he was famous for his incorruptible integrity which was put to a severe test later in his life when he, unlike almost all his contemporaries, suffered over two years of imprisonment and constant severe beatings rather than adopt the rationalist Mu‘tazili doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an which had become official Abbasid government policy, and which was clearly contrary to the position held by the early Muslims. This event also showed his steadfastness and patience which saw him through the many other difficult periods which punctuated his long life.

Other qualities he possessed were great generosity in spite of scant means, transparent sincerity, scrupulousness and abstinence, modesty and cheerfulness, and a natural authority which ensured that people paid attention to what he said. So strong was his connection with the early days of Islam, and so brightly was light of that time reflected in all he said and did, that some of his contemporaries described him as being a great Follower removed from his proper time. All these things and his status as a man of knowledge meant that when he died on 12th Rabi‘ al-Awwal 241AH more than three hundred thousand people joined his funeral procession. All in all then it must be said that from very early times there has  been much discussion about whether Imam Ahmad can really be said to have been the founder of a separate madhhab. It is certainly clear that he was in a different category to the other three, who all represented very specific methodologies in their implementation of the Book and Sunnah. He was definitely one of a kind in terms of the time and place where he lived and ploughed his own furrow in his determination to cleave as closely as he possibly could to the path followed by the first community in Madinah, remaining absolutely orthodox in his views while at the same time being somewhat at odds with the prevailing ethos surrounding him. This is significant in the light of some of those who were to adopt him as their imam in fiqh later on, several of whom were people who found themselves at odds with the authorities of their own time and found in Imam Ahmad a way of remaining firmly within the bounds of orthodox Muslim belief and practice while at the same time differentiating themselves from the power structure of their time.

He himself said, “A man should not set himself up to give independent judgment about the deen unless he possesses five qualities. He must have a clear intention because unless he has he will have no light. He must have knowledge, forbearance, gravity and tranquillity. He must be firm in his knowledge. He must be independent and not dependent on other people. And he must be known to people.” There are few people in the history of Islam who have fulfilled these criteria to the extent that Imam Ahmad himself did. So what can certainly be said is that Imam Ahmad was a mujtahid of the very highest rank, absolutely able to make independent judgments concerning matters of the deen. That does not in itself, however, automatically make him the founder of an independent school of fiqh and, if he was, it was certainly in a very different way to that of his three pre-eminent predecessors.

Seeing Imam Ahmad’s work in this light, as a heroic attempt to recapture both for himself and his contemporaries the ethos of what was already by his time a bygone age, we are left with three distinct methodologies each of which aimed in their own way to embrace and define the Book and Sunnah and pass it on to subsequent generations.

The first was the Iraqi school also known as the “School of Opinion”, definitively formulated by Imam Abu Hanifa and known to future generations as the Hanafi Madhhab. The essence of this methodology was that, in the absence of a known, direct precedent, a new ruling could be made on the basis of understanding the legal purpose behind a previous ruling from the Book or Sunnah about a similar situation, and analogously attributing that same legal aim to the new situation. In other words, it aimed to distil certain legal principles from the body of the Book and Sunnah which could then be applied as new circumstances demanded. This process was obviously subject to great knowledge of the sources, scrupulous piety, and a rigorous adherence accepted limits on the part of the faqih concerned, but it nevertheless allowed a certain leeway in the definition of what could be included within the parameters of the Book and Sunnah. For this reason, it was an ideal system for those entrusted with the governance and administration of the Ummah, and it is noteworthy that the first great power structure of Islam, the Abbasid Caliphate, was based in Iraq and that the two main dynasties of later times, the Osmanli Dawla and the Mughal Empire, who between them ruled over the vast majority of the Muslim world for centuries, both appointed the Hanafi Madhhab as the official legal modality of their administrative systems.

The Madinan school, definitively formulated by Imam Malik and outlined in his great work al-Muwatta, took a very different approach. For the Madinans, the Book and Sunnah were a matter of direct transmission. They were simply what had been passed down and conscientiously and scrupulously preserved through the two generations that had elapsed since the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, and his Companions, ajma’in, as a lived reality. The textual sources were, for them, sounding boards or yardsticks against which their ongoing practice should be measured to make sure that there was no deviation and the road remained clearly delineated. The proof that the deen could be transmitted in this way is shown by the fact that the third generation received it in this way from the second, none of whom had had direct personal contact with the original phenomenon. The school of the ‘amal ahli’l-Madinah (the practice of the people of Madinah) flowed in a river of transmission down through the centuries along the North African coast and then into West Africa with small pockets remaining in the Arabian peninsular. It is significant that Qadi ‘Iyad in his great work Tartib al-Madarik, which traces the history of the Madinan school down to his own time, does not dwell on the texts written within it over the centuries but rather devotes himself to describing the type of men it produced, showing that it remained in his view much more a matter of transmitted behaviour than of recorded judgments.

This is again very different from the approach to the Book and Sunnah adopted by Imam ash-Shafi‘i. As we have seen, in order to counteract the growing tendency towards unacceptable variations in the practice of the deen he had observed on his travels and to preserve Islam within the clear parameters delineated by Allah and His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم, he devised a system based on rigorous textual analysis of the ayaat of the Qur’an and the hadiths of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This certainly achieved his desired aim, but at the same time limited the Sunnah to only those actions for which textual evidence could be produced. It is also very different from the Madinan tradition in which the transmitted action exists independently of the text which merely serves to confirm its authenticity. In the Shafi‘i system, on the other hand, the source texts serve as engenderers of action – in effect, the practice of the deen actually derives from the texts themselves.

As was pointed out earlier, this approach necessitated a vast increase in the number of authentic textual sources available, and so brought about the development of all the sophisticated sciences surrounding the collection and authentication of hadiths. This and the complex intellectual discipline required to implement Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s demanding criteria, which became known to subsequent generations under the general heading of usul al-fiqh, entailed a new class of specialist scholars who became a necessary element in Islamic society from this time on. And it is true to say that many fuqaha from the other schools soon began to incorporate aspects of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s methodology into their own procedures to the point that it might almost be said that basically all the scholars of Islam became to a greater or lesser extent adherents of Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s brilliant system.

Two things need to be said at this point as a necessary supplement to what has been discussed so far. The first is there has been no intention, in making these observations about the four madhhabs of Islam, to present a complete picture of any of them. From the beginning each of them included many elements which have not been presented in this analysis, and certainly over time each of them developed into highly complex structures about which countless volumes have been written. My purpose has been to highlight certain salient features in each of them in order to show how each of them, in its own way, embodies a specific approach to the matter of exactly what constitutes the deen of Islam. The second point is to reaffirm categorically that every one of them comprises in itself an authentic transmission of the deen down to our own time. Each of them in its traditionally accepted form represents a body of knowledge and practice through which the whole edifice of Islam has been preserved and renewed down through the centuries. It is, however, important to observe that each of them is self-consistent, that each of them is the result of that particular methodology which brought it into being and, therefore, that it is not possible to chop and change indiscriminately between them.

Each must be taken as a whole and applied as it has come down in its accepted form. The haphazard mix and match approach adopted by some unqualified Muslims nowadays, whereby they randomly choose a different ruling from a madhhab other than their own to suit a particular situation in which they find themselves, is erroneous. The madhhabs are clear paths which have been laid down to be followed just as they are. A great deal of knowledge is needed to be able to judge when its is appropriate to use a ruling borrowed from another madhhab and anyone who does that without the necessary learning is in effect arrogantly setting themselves up as a qualified mujtahid. More grievously at fault are those Muslims who claim that no madhhab is necessary at all, that it is possible, or in the worst cases even compulsory, to reject all these centuries of traditional scholarship and, returning, as they assert, directly to the sources, to find a version of Islam which somehow escaped the notice of our sincere and extremely learned ancestors.

These latter culprits can be loosely gathered into two groupings, modernists and salafis, both of which, curiously enough, employ, in an inauthentic way, the very methodologies embodied by two of the madhhabs we have been examining. The modernists might well be termed deviant Hanafis because they are people who, without anything like the necessary knowledge, integrity and Taqwa to do so, employ an approximation of the methodology of the Iraqi school to reach judgments about current issues in a mistaken attempt to accommodate Islam to the times in which we live and who, in doing so, have made compromises in the deen which have undermined some of the basic premises of the Islamic Shari’ah.

One early instance of this trend, among innumerable examples which have occurred since, was the infamous late 19th century fatwa of Muhammad ‘Abduh permitting Muslims to invest in interest bearing accounts in the British run Egyptian post office. He paid no attention to the clearly expressed objections of his fellow ‘ulama, insisting that the Shari’ah should be interpreted by reason, and arguing that preventing Muslims from investing their money in this way would give an unfair advantage to non-muslims. This opened the door to the wholesale introduction of modern banking into Islamic lands and the consequent subjection of the Muslims to the kafir economic and political domination which followed in its wake.

In the hands of men such as ‘Ali ‘Abd ar-Raziq and ‘Abd ar-Razzaq as- Sanhuri this school of thought gathered momentum and led to introduction of foreign legal systems in almost every Muslim country which has resulted in the virtual abandonment of the Shari’ah everywhere in the Islamic world. The examples of this way of thinking, on both a communal and personal level, has resulted in a situation where the barriers between Islam and kufr have become blurred to the point that the Qur’anic ayah, “To you your deen and to me my deen,” has basically ceased to have any meaningful manifestation in the world today.

The second group, the salafis, base their practice of Islam on a “return to the sources” by which they mean a re-examination of the hadith collections. Their arrogant assertion is that by doing this they have discovered, after fourteen centuries, that for all this time the Muslims have been failing to implement properly the Sunnah of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. In as far as their whole premise is based on analysis of hadith texts, even if lacking in the necessary inward and outward qualifications to make it authoritative, they could be said to be neo-Shafi‘i’s in that they use a debased form of the methodology devised by Imam ash-Shafi‘i to derive practices from their literal and deficient understanding of the texts involved. Their claim that earlier generations of Muslims did not have access to the texts is demonstrably false. The whole vast and intricate structure of the science of hadith developed by the scholars of Islam was devoted, as we have seen, to ensuring that the practices of the Sunnah were carefully based on a precise understanding the hadith texts involved. To say at this distance in time that these texts have in fact been misunderstood or misapplied by all the Muslims throughout history demonstrates an extraordinary arrogance which is almost incomprehensible.

One example of this is the salafi practice of placing the hands across the chest in the qabd position when standing up from ruku‘ in the prayer. The evidence for this, according to them, is a hadith in which it says that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, used to come back after ruku‘ into the same position he had been in before going into it. All the Muslims have always understood this to mean that he simply returned to the upright position. But this new literalist salafi interpretation of the hadith has introduced into the prayer a practice never performed before by any Muslims anywhere, with the unwarranted implication that the whole community has been mistaken about this matter for fourteen centuries. There are unfortunately a great many similar examples and this new version of Islam is more often than not propagated by its adherents with an overweening air of self-righteousness which is far removed from the courtesy and humility displayed by true scholars of the deen. Another unfortunate result of this false teaching is that it has spawned a generation of young people who truly believe that, armed with a translation of a collection of hadith, they can decide for themselves what constitutes the Sunnah and that, moreover, it is their bounden duty to put every other Muslim right if they do not agree  with them.

This then is the way that the methodologies of Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam ash-Shafi‘i have been ignorantly abused in the world today and the same can also be said of the methodology of Imam Malik although, in its case, the abuse has taken a slightly different form. As we have noted the basis of the distinctive methodology of Imam Malik is direct transmission.

The truth is that this is, for the vast majority of Muslims, the way they  infact take on the deen. They learn it by example from their families and the Muslim community in which they live. This is all well and good provided that what they absorb is within the limits set out by one of the four madhhabs we have been discussing. All too often, however, various accretions have crept in, borrowed from local culture or ancient custom, which are considered by the people of a particular area to be part and parcel of the deen when, in reality, they have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam at all. These supplementary practices sometimes become so ingrained in a particular Muslim community that it becomes very difficult to eradicate them and many of the people think that anyone who tries to do so is attacking Islam itself.

If this is the negative way that the madhhab methodologies are manifesting themselves in the present day, what about the originals, the great rivers of transmission of Islam from the past, we have been looking at – what is their relationship with the world in which we now live? The truth is that in the present context the madhhabs now have very little to do with the methodologies which originally brought them into existence. They are now, and have been for a considerable time, nothing but static bodies of law, compendious compilations of legal rulings, covering every aspect of personal and social life in the Muslim community.

As we said at the beginning a person’s affiliation to a particular madhhab has become in almost every case simply a matter of geography. The madhhab you have depends on an accident of birth; where you were born determines the madhhab you adopt. If you were born in Turkey or the Indian Subcontinent you are automatically a Hanafi. If you were born in the Far East you become Shafi’i. If you were born in North or West Africa you become Maliki. Throughout the Middle East there is more of a mixture and your madhhab tends to depend on the family you were born into. There is no doubt that this has in many ways proved a protection for the Muslims throughout the world and that through the teaching of their madhhab they have retained access to an unbroken and authentic transmission of the deen of Islam from the earliest times.

There is, however, a downside to this. It tends to give the impression that things are still all right, that the situation of the Muslims today is somehow comparable with what was in the past, that Islam is still a functioning reality. That is emphatically not the case. There is now nowhere on the surface of the earth where Allah’s deen is being implemented in anything but a most fragmented way. The hudud have been to all intents and purposes completely abandoned and replaced by various man-made versions of criminal law. Most of the personal and social aspects of the deen, even in those places where they are claimed to be in force, have in fact become watered down and compromised to fit in with Western legal modalities. As for the financial and economic aspects of the Shari’ah, they have been completely jettisoned in favour of the usury based capitalist economic system engendered in post reformation Europe, which was first used as a weapon to destroy Dar al-Islam and is now the instrument by means of which the Muslims, along with the rest of the world’s population, are held in a state of somnolent subjugation. The reason for this is that the Book and Sunnah are not seen as the prime source of governance by any Muslim regime anywhere in the world. This in fact has made all the madhhabs virtually redundant in real terms.

The madhhabs were all developed within a context of unabashed Muslim rule, where Allah and His Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم were seen as the only source of legal authority, in which the Book and Sunnah were seen as the only valid criteria for the government of human affairs. Their purpose was to come up with all the rulings necessary for the correct implementation of the Book and Sunnah in every area of Muslim life in the certainty that these rulings would be immediately enacted. There was nothing theoretical about them; they did not exist in a vacuum. They were a vital and active principle in the ongoing life of every Muslim society. Under their sway rulers ruled, judges judged, traders traded and, in every aspect, life was lived. What a difference between then and now! In the eyes of Muslim rulers now the madhhabs are irrelevant. Even for Muslim judges in this time the madhhab is well down their list of legal sources. And the idea of a modern Muslim businessman being subject to the strictures of a madhhab is simply laughable. The madhhabs have been reduced to being the domain of emasculated scholars who frequently know every ruling there is to know about every subject under the sun but are impotent to implement a single one of them.

So although the madhhabs do provide a link with the past and have ensured an authentic transmission of the deen into the present age, the truth is that they no longer fulfill the purpose for which they were brought into being. Their purpose was to provide the rulings for the complete implementation of Islam in every area of life and they are not able to do that because there is nowhere where Allah’s deen is established. This is the first time since the first community in Madinah that this has happened and our primary task as Muslims in this time must be to see the Book and Sunnah once more put back in place as the sole fountainhead of all our affairs. Nothing short of this is acceptable and it must be the continual and explicit intention of every Muslim to see this come about until it has happened.

The madhhabs were excellent tools for implementing the Book and Sunnah once they were in place but they had nothing to do with establishing them in the first place. So it is most unlikely that the madhhabs as presently constituted will provide us with the means to perform the task which faces us. Imam Malik used to say, “The last of this community will not be put right except by what put it right in the first place.” In other words, in order to restore Allah’s deen to its rightful place at the head of Muslim affairs, we have to get right back to what was there at the beginning. The question is how to do this? The modernists do not even want to. Although the salafis claim that it is what they want, their route is a non-starter because there is no direct access to the source by the means they espouse.

If we view Islam as a river whose source was the first community, and which has flowed down through more than fourteen centuries to our time, then the madhhabs have clearly been an inseparable part of that river. But the question here is do they lead back to its source? Continuing the river metaphor and turning the years into miles, if we go back up stream, we come upon a dam about two hundred and twenty miles from the source. Behind the dam is a huge reservoir into which much of the headwater of the river is gathered before flowing on again towards the sea. This dam is Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal. One hundred and eighty five miles from the source we find that a great canal has been dug, leading off the main river and running parallel with it for many hundreds of miles before rejoining it far downstream. It is beautifully engineered and allows the filtered and purified water from the river which fills it to flow uniformly between its well constructed banks making it easy to manage and administrate. This canal is the madhhab of Imam ash-Shafi‘i.

Further upstream, about a hundred and twenty miles from the source we find a tributary flowing into the river from one side and mixing with it, whose spring is in some nearby hills. This is the methodology of the Hanafi madhhab. Finally, a little before we reach that tributary we would find a sluice system through which all the water from the very source of the river is regulated and directed. This is Imam Malik. What this makes clear is that in the end it is only through Imam Malik that we can have access to the very source of the deen, that primal picture of Islam in action which we need in order to be able to re-establish the deen here and now.

In this regard, Imam Malik should be seen, therefore, not as the founder of  the subsequent madhhab named after him but rather as the Imam of the Dar al-Hijra, Madinah al-Munawwarah, and the recorder and transmitter of the ‘amal ahli’l-Madinah, the practice of the people of Madinah. As we know, Imam Malik saw it as his task to capture for posterity the living tradition of Islam in action, the Book and Sunnah in their pristine original form, which had been passed down to him unaltered through  the two generations that had elapsed since the death of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This clearly represents the closest possible exposition of Islam as it was actually lived by the Prophet and his Companions, the unbroken transmission of the Book and Sunnah in the very place where it had been established, preserved and unaltered in any way by the two generations who had lived there between the days of the First Community and the time of Imam Malik. So what it brings to us is that raw, vital energy of the first days of Islam, the time of the Prophet himself صلى الله عليه وسلم, and the time immediately following it of the Khulafah Rashidun,   ajma’in, when the deen was in its most potent phase of expansion and establishment. For  that reason it is sometimes known as the madhhab of ‘Umar  رضي الله عنه.

It was that very behaviour pattern which made Islam happen in the first place, so what better model could there be for this time when it is once again necessary to start from the ground up. The historical proof of its potency can be seen in the example of the Murabitun in the eleventh century. The Practice of the People of Madinah was transmitted to them by Abdallah ibn Yasin, the teacher sent to them from Kairouan, where the living record of the ‘amal ahli’l-Madinah had been passed on unbroken from the time of Imam Malik himself, and with it, and nothing else, they burst out from their land in West Africa and revived Islam throughout the Maghrib and al-Andalus, ensuring the Muslims in Spain, who had at that time almost come under Christian domination, a further two hundred years of Islamic governance.

Its incontrovertible authenticity has been repeatedly verified throughout the centuries, not least by the celebrated Hanbali scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, whose book ‘The Soundness of the Basic Premises of the Madhhab of the People of Madinah‘, makes it clear that the most complete picture of the Sunnah, both in terms of its spirit and its actual practice, was that passed on by Imam Malik and captured in its outline in his book al-Muwatta. This was because of Imam Malik’s great knowledge, his geographical location in the City of the Prophet, the great number of men of knowledge who had remained there, preserving the deen in its entirety from the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and the fact that, as was universally acknowledged, no innovation in the deen at all entered Madinah during the first three generations of Islam. Also worth mentioning, in a contemporary context, is the book of Dr. Yasin Dutton ‘The Origins of Islamic Law’, a piece of scrupulous scholarship. In his book, Dr. Dutton shows conclusively that  Malik’sMuwatta does indeed contain a direct record of the authentic practice of the first Community and by doing so, incidentally, deals a death blow to those orientalists who have maintained that there was a time-gap between the first Community and the development of the Shari’ah of Islam.

Several times during the history of the deen at times when, for one reason or another, it had fallen into disrepair and decadence and was in need of renewal, the scholars of Islam have pointed out that the madhhab of the ‘amal ahli’l-Madinah represented a position which was pure Book and Sunnah with no controversy in it whatsoever on which all the Muslims could come together. A notable example, for instance was the great Indian scholar Shah Waliullah of Delhi, who explicitly propagated it as a way of reviving the deen in India in the face of the advancing British. In our own time, the mantle of this task has fallen on the shoulders of Dr. Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi whose seminal text Root Islamic Education shows definitively how the primal model of Madinan Islam gives us all the guidance we need for the complete re-implementation of Islamic governance. He says in it:

The duty is to come together at that point where there is no argument and no deviation. The place is Madinah. Only there can we all meet in that primal ‘Umari Islam, … for it was the evidence and proof from the Messenger of Allah that men could live together in justice and in peace and with trust in each other, by obedience to Allah,  . It is the school of Madinah, salafi, and pure, that will unite the Muslims, and revitalise the deen, and restore the reality of the second shahada, along with the first.

So the Madhhab of the ‘amal ahli’l-Madinah, of the Actions of the People of Madinah, represents the way that Islam came into being in the first place, directly at the hands the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in his explanation of the ayaat of the Qur’an and his implementation of them in his own life among his Companions, ajma‘in. This was the basis of all four madhhabs and this is what the Muslims have to get back to. This understanding of the Deen fresh from the source as it appeared in the actions of the people of Madinah is what we must have if Islam is to be restored to the position it should hold at the head of all human affairs.

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