A Lecture Presented at the International Islamic Unity Conference, August 8, 1996
Bismillah. Alhamdulillah. Was-salaat was-salaam alaa Rasul-illah wa alihi wa sahbihi wa man walaa. In our gathering today, we are showing, of course, the reality and not the Hollywood myth about our Islamic faith. At this rich and very wonderful and blessed time of the year, we Muslims always reverently and with love, call to mind the birthday of our blessed Prophet sallallahu `alayhi was-sallam – the one who is dearer to us than our selves, our fathers, our families, and all mankind.
Nothing could be further from the monstrous stereotypes now being put about Muslims than this experience of celebrating the birthday of a man whose traits and perfections have brought him such incomparable love down the ages.
And yet nowadays – and this is the catch – we are forced to acknowledge that among his alleged followers today and in very strident violation of his own ethic, there exists a tiny minority whose aim in life seems to be to strive to conform precisely to that miserable stereotype that so many would have of us. Every faith, obviously, and this is sad and inevitable, has a lunatic fringe and Islam is not immune from this sobering and universal law.
Now, the Muslims who are capturing the headlines of today’s newspapers are of course not the saints and the charity workers, the builders of hospitals, and the upholders of decent family life. They are our lunatic fringe: the followers of a sect, a heresy whose shadow is now spreading over the entire world.
Probably all of us have had some kind of experience of them: their arrogance, their ignorance, and their often quite reptilian aggressiveness are sadly quite unforgettable. Everywhere we turn now in our Muslim Communities, there they seem to be. Like some kind of spiritual HIV virus, they are spreading through the body of our Ummah. One or two of them are quite enough to cloud and poison the most pleasant gathering of believers.
The Unity of the Ummah, which is the glorious theme of today’s conference, seems quite literally to be in peril. Now these people, and of course it is totally unnecessary to mention any of their names, are divided themselves into countless sects, and sub-sects, and subdivisions. Their delight in insulting and attacking each other seems second only to the exquisite joy they seem to feel in insulting traditional Muslims and their scholars. But they agree upon one thing and this is in fact the definition of who they are: they set themselves up as superior to the great ulama of the past. They claim that the four schools, the madhhahib, which has been the mechanism and the guarantor for the unity and coherence of traditional Islam for so long, contain gross errors of content and of methodology. Theirs is the outrageous claim that the original vision of Islam never enjoined the Muslims to create or to follow such schools of fiqh. In their literature, they make the accusation that to follow a madhhab is some kind of alternative to following the Sunna of the blessed Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam. And as such, many of them further claim, it is a form of setting up a human authority as a rival to the authority of God Himself, it is a kind of shirk. And in fact it is quite possible to read, and I have seen it myself in their pamphlets which they distribute in such vast numbers, that to follow one of the four madhhabs is a form of shirk.
Now, if one has to think hard and to make a list of the most illogical and crazy heresies that have appeared in the long and varied history of Islam, this surely would be right at the very top. It is a terrifying sign of the ignorance that grips the Muslims today that anyone, even amongst the least educated and intelligent people, could ever think such thoughts. And yet it is, and also, it is a no less terrifying proof, I think of, of the lack of awe and respect which we have in our hearts towards the great scholars of our Ummah, particularly those of the golden ages of Islamic scholarship. How odd that any of us could believe that the ulama who have faithfully followed the four madhhabs, and basically this means of course rounded out 99% of the ulama of Islam, should have been guilty of following and calling to a rival, some kind of alternative to the Sunna of the blessed Prophet, alayhi as-salaat was-salaam. It would be hard to find a more drastic and disgraceful example of what can happen when the heart is polluted According to this view, really the standard lists of the great ulama of Islam: Imam al-Ghazali, as-Suyuti, an-Nawawi, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, and so on – really the entire constellation of Islamic scholars, whose heart commission it was to explain and classify and present to us Islamic legal and doctrinal heritage, were drastically misguided.
So that leaves of course the obvious question: So, who are the rightly-guided, who is the saved sect, (firqatun naajiyya) Well the list, according to the adherents of this strange view, is naturally, a pretty short one. Some of them would include Ibn Taymiyya, but it s interesting to note that even today members of this tendency in Islam would want to cross his name off as well. Basically the list ends up with one or two people on it: either it is “me myself” or “me and my teacher.”
And invariably we find that the teacher tends to be an electrical engineer or computer programmer or whatever, but in fact of course he is presented as being the great mujtahid and scholar of this age. Or in the other alternative, where there is just one person on the list, it is just “me myself”: it is me who has to follow my ‘idanat shakhsiyya, my own personal conviction, in deducing Shari`a from the Qur’an and Sunna, to rely on anybody else has to be a form of innovation and idolatry.
Now obviously this is absurd, and yet these people do exist, we have all met them. We go into a mosque and we worship according to the guidance of, say, Imam Malik, they will descend upon us, surround us with their customary arrogance, and tell us that we are “doing it wrong”, we should be “worshipping according to the true understanding of the Sunna”, which is that of electrical engineer so-and-so, whoever it may happen to be. Now this seems absurd, but probably many of us have had this experience.
Now here, I have my own, as it were, personal confession to make: like all newcomers to Islam, I didn’t actually inherit a madhhab. Most Muslims traditionally inherit a madhhab from their families, which is a perfectly legitimate state of affairs, of course. Neither as a new Muslim, at that time even more ignorant than I am today, did I have the least idea how one would set about choosing a madhhab; and in those days of course, most of the texts of the madhhabs were inaccessible to people without the knowledge of Arabic.
And so, as I today rather sheepishly recall, whenever I wanted to discover Islam’s ruling on any particular question, I would look up the relevant word in the index to Pickthall’s translation of the Qur’an and, then, if I couldn’t find anything that satisfied me there, I would have a quick rummage in the books of hadith such as happened to be translated into English.
And nowadays of course, with the advent of computer technology, this temptation has become ever more drastic. If we want an answer to any of the problems of life from the Islamic point of view, we just pop in the CD-rom and there comes up the answer from some hadith or verses of Qur’an and we take that to be the fiqh.
However, as I soon found, and at that time I was a student of Islamic history, this simply was not the way that the early Muslims themselves proceeded. Ibn Khaldun, for instance, who has a lot of interesting things to say about the evolution of fiqh, points this out. If I can just quote him, he says, “Not all of the Sahaba, the Companions, were qualified to give fatwas and Islam was not taken from all of them. That privilege was held only by those who had learnt the Qur’an, knew what it contained by way of abrogated and abrogating passages, ambiguous and obvious expressions, and its other special features.”
Now, what Ibn Khaldun is doing here, is pointing out the obvious fact that the Sahaba were not all equal in their knowledge of the Sunna. The great ones, who had spent time in the blessed presence of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, were qualified to give fatwas; others, who had spent less time with him, perhaps less scholarly capabilities perhaps, were not.
And so, in all of the standard texts of Islamic legal methodology, usul al-fiqh, we find, for instance, people like Imam al-Juwayni, giving lists of the muftis among the Companions. There is a category in usul al-fiqh called fatwa sahabi which means the legal verdicts given by a particular Companion and the debate is which of the Companions are considered more authoritative than the others. Imam al-Juwayni gives the lists of the four khalifas, Talha Ibn Ubaydullah, Abdur-Rahman ibn `Awf, and Sa`d bin Abi Waqqas. Others were generally regarded as not being muftis, not being authorized to deduce and to expound the values of the Shari`a on their own. Abu Hurayra, for instance, despite his enormous, oceanic knowledge of the Sunna, is not considered, generally, to have been a mufti.
We find the same position, really, in all of the standard textbooks of Islamic legal methodology. The great Maliki scholar Imam al-Baji, for instance, says, “Ordinary Muslims have no alternative but to follow the ulama. One proof of this is the `ijma of the Sahaba, for those among them who had not attained the degree of ijtihad used to ask the ulama of the Sahaba for the correct ruling on something which happened to them. Not one of the Sahaba criticized them for so doing, on the contrary, they gave them fatwas on the issues they had asked about without condemning them or telling them to derive rulings themselves from the Qur’an and the Sunna.
And this principle continued generation of the Tabi`in, even more so then, of course, with the growing catharsis and violent level of religious learning among the Muslims. So we find, Imam ash-Shabi, for instance, despite again his quite extraordinary and oceanic knowledge, refusing to consider himself to be a mufti. He was, he said, only a naqil, somebody who only transmitted the texts and transmitted the opinions of others.
Now this tried and tested principle of Islam is known as taqlid, which means emulation of somebody who knows more than you do. Either somebody is qualified to derive rulings of Shari`a from the Qur’an and Sunna in which case such a person is obliged to do so and is not permitted to follow the deductions made by anybody else; or on the other hand, one is not so qualified, in which case it is obligatory for him to follow the verdict of the qualified.
Islamic knowledge in this respect is like any other branch of knowledge known to man. For instance, if you are a student of medicine, or for instance, if you’re a beginning student of medicine and your child falls ill, then what do you do? Do you go to the medical textbooks and try to figure out what the correct remedy will be or do you go to the best doctor you can find and consult that person? Obviously, you’ll choose the latter option. And if you are interested in building a nuclear power station, what do you do? Do you say, “ I don’t accept the traditional texts of nuclear physics – I just believe in nuclear power and I want to build my own power station and I’m not going to pay any attention to the views and deductions of other people who have thought similarly in the past. I’m going to do it all for myself. Obviously, this is absurd.
And in this respect, really, Islamic knowledge is not categorically different from any other branch of knowledge. It involves information. It involves systematic methods of processing and presenting that information. The science of deriving the Shari`a from the revelation, which is known as usul al-fiqh, is, of course, a necessarily intricate business. And it is even more important that we get this right then that we get, for instance, the judgments in medicine correct, because this has to do not just with, not with our physical health, but it has to do with our prospects for eternal salvation.
Now, obviously, Islam has a core message: it has the two shahadas, it has the obligations to conform to certain basic universal, ethical principles in moral life. And that is extremely simple. In its essence, Islam is an enormously simple vision. But the revelation also, necessarily, contains complexities, particularly in legal areas, because human life and human societies are themselves complex. Hence the involvement in the variety of that body of legal methodologies and rulings that we call the fiqh.
Now, if anybody wants to learn more about the techniques which the ulama have traditionally applied for this process of instinbat, of deduction of the Shari`a from the revealed sources, I would suggest they go to Professor Muhammad Hashim Kamali’s book, which despite one or two falls from grace generally is a very good presentation of the sciences of usul of fiqh; which explains the principle, for instance, of knowing which verses of the Qur’an are abrogated mansukh and which abrogating nasikh. If you follow the principle of ‘do-it-yourself-fiqh’ that I was explaining earlier, you would simply not be able to know which verses of the Qur’an still carry legal weight and which have been abrogated by later ones.
Similarly, there is a principle of naskh, of abrogation, in the Sunna; very many hadith were applicable to situations in the early development of the Muslim Ummah in the time of the Prophet sallallahu alayhi was-sallam. Later on, as conditions changed, he made it clear that the Islamic ruling had moved in a different direction. And yet, some of the earlier principles can still be found in the standard works of hadith, they are sound hadith, you’ll find them in Bukhari and Muslim, but they are not considered to be a basis for action by the fuqaha because they are mansukhat, they have been abrogated.
These are just two examples, there are many others that I can give, for instance from qiyas, the well-known principle of juridical analogy: whether one, how one can derive a principle of the Shari`a by looking at the ways in which the Shari`a has developed on other issues – probably the most complicated subheading of usul ul-fiqh, and so on. If you look at Professor Hashim Kamali’s book, you’ll see exactly how precise, how difficult, how demanding, is this science of deriving the law from the revealed sources.
Now, confronted with this brilliant but very difficult body of texts, ordinary believers simply have no option but to submit to the authority of the scholars. Why? because most of us do not have either the brain power or the time or the energy to become great scholars, it simply is not feasible, and it is not something that Allah has made obligatory upon every member of this Ummah to become a great mujtahid.
Now, this authority, the authority of the scholars, is not a rival to the revelation. It is nothing other than a statement of the revelation in a format that’s unambiguous and can be easily followed.
The body of authoritative verdicts of a great and fully qualified scholar, who has mastered the texts, learned the rules and occasions of abrogation, qualifications and contexts, is simply this: he is like a telescope, crafted by an expert in optics which helps us to see the revelation more clearly. We can either gratefully use such a telescope, fashioned by the hand of a master such as Imam Malik or Abu Hanifa or as-Shafi`i or Ibn Hanbal and their followers; or we can in the characteristic modern, arrogant, activist fashion, try to build our own telescope. And if we chose the latter alternative, and if, perhaps we are, we are amateurs, we will see the revelation in a refracted and a distorted form.
In this sense, every Muslim has a madhhab, whether we like it or not. Every single one of us has a way of following the revelation, has a take on the revelation. We either have the madhhab of somebody who really knows about the revelation or we have our own madhhab; there is no third choice. So the question of whether or not to follow a madhhab is in fact not a meaningful question. Everybody is following a madhhab, the word madhhab itself simply means ‘a way.’
I am sometimes rather doubtful about this translation that we have come to accept of a madhhab as a ‘school of thought.’ I think that semantically shifts it away from its original intention which is simply: ‘a means to an end,’ a madhhab, ‘a way.’
The first condition for, I would say really the, in order to build Muslim unity today, to take us back to the theme of the conference: the first condition has to be to reestablish a coherent system of interpretation in the Divine, of the Divine Lawgiver’s messages to us along these lines. Unless we do so, we will have not four madhhabs in their usual, traditional condition of harmony. We will be going to have as many madhhabs as we have Muslim egos. For those wild and desperate Muslims who reject taqlid and reinterpret the religion in terms of their own time-bound preferences, and their own frustrations and resentments, are going to become so numerous and so aggressive that that principle, that precious thing called Muslim unity, is going to be lost forever, and the religion will slip ever more disastrously into the extreme and violent direction that the followers of the anti-madhhabist tendency have charted for it.
Islam, and this has always been my experience as a newcomer to Islam who knew for many years the alternative, Islam is a gift. This is how we have to see it. It is our most precious possession. It is through Islam that we strive for peace and justice and harmony in the world and it is through Islam that we strive also for eternal joy and serenity in the presence of our Creator.
Now its time to act to save this gift before its too late. There is a real danger that this gift will be taken away from us by these people. We much patch the present torn fabric of the Muslim mind and try to recreate that extraordinary methodology incarnated in the four madhhabs of Sunni Islam, championed by the great Imams of our history, and which underpinned our unity for so long.
© 2012 As-Sunnah Foundation of America