Unity Through Schools of Thought

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.

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