Ijma` – Role of Taqlid

Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani

The obligation to follow the opinion of those more knowledgeable than us is reported by Ibn Qayyim on his discussion of the different kinds of taqlid. He said:

There is an obligatory (wajib) taqlid, a forbidden taqlid, and a permitted taqlid… The obligatory taqlid is the taqlid of those who know better than us, as when a person has not obtained knowledge of an evidence from the Qur’an or the Sunna concerning something. Such a taqlid has been reported from Imam al-Shafi`i in many places, where he would say:  ‘I said this in taqlid of `Umar’ or ‘I said that in taqlid of `Uthman’ or ‘I said that in taqlid of `Ata’. As al-Shafi`i said concerning the Companions — may Allah be well pleased with all of them:  ‘Their opinion for us is better than our opinion to ourselves.’” Ibn Qayyim, A`lam al-muwaqqi`in `an rabb al-`alamin 2:186-187.

This is the meaning of Imam Ahmad’s frequent warning in his answers:

Beware of speaking on a matter regarding which you don’t stand on an imam (as your precedent): iyyaka an tatakallama fi mas’alatin laysa laka fiha imam.

Albani says:

This is a frequent saying of Imam Ahmad: see our editions of his responses to various questions, such as Masa’il `Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, Masa’il Ibn Hani’ al-Nisaburi, and Masa’il al-Kharqi.

Another saying of his under al-Ma’mun’s Inquisition was: “How can I say what was never said before?” (kayfa aqulu ma lam yuqal), cited by Ibn Taymiyya in his Majmu` al-fatawa (19:320-341). See Albani’s edition of San`ani’s Raf` al-astar li ibtali adillat al-qa’ilina bi fana’i al-nar (Beirut & Damascus: al-maktab al-islami, 1405/1984), p. 41.

Jamil Effendi Sidqi al-Zahawi of Baghdad (d. 1930 CE) wrote in al-Fajr al-sadiq, a refutation of the Wahhabi heresy:

Among the evidences for the probative value of ijma’ is the Prophet’s statement, on him be peace: “My community will never agree on error.” The content of this hadith is so well-known that it is impossible to lie about it [mutawatir] simply because it is produced in so many narrations, for example: “My community will not come together on misguidance”; “A group of my community will continue on truth until the coming of the Hour.”; “The hand of Allah is with the congregation”; “Whoever separates from the congregation…”; “Whoever leaves the community or separates himself from it by the length of a span, dies the death of the Jahiliyya (period of ignorance prior to Islam)” etc.

`Abd Allah ibn Mas`ud said:

Whatever the Muslims deem to be good is good in the eyes of Allah and whatever they consider bad is bad in Allah’s view.

This is an authentic saying of Ibn Mas`ud. Ahmad related it in his Musnad (1:379 #3599), also al-Bazzar and Tabarani in the Mu`jam al-Kabir as Haythami said in Majma` al-zawa’id, and he adds: “Its narrators are trustworthy.” Al-Amidi considered this to be a hadith whose chain of narration goes back to the Prophet (al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam 2nd ed. Beirut, 1401/1982, 1:214). Ahmad Hasan points out that Abu Hanifa’s disciple Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Shaybani initially reported this as a hadith, but that later it was attributed to Ibn Mas`ud.

It is not true that its chain as related by Ahmad contains Sulayman ibn `Amr al-Nakha`i as claimed by `Abd al-Wahhab `Abd al-Latif the commentator to Malik’s Muwatta’ as narrated by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani” in his notes (p. 91); nor that it is not contained in Ahmad’s Musnad, as `Abd al-Latif further claims; this is a mistake on the part of hafiz al-Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-hasana (p. 368) where he says: “Ahmad narrated it in al-Sunna and whoever ascribes it to the Musnad is mistaken [it is in the Musnad]… It is extracted by al-Bazzar, al-Tayalisi, al-Tabarani, and Abu Nu`aym in his biography of Ibn Ma`sud in the Hilya, also by Bayhaqi in al-I`tiqad.”

Imam al-Tahawi said in his `Aqida al-tahawiyya:

Wa la nukhalifu jama`at al-muslimin “We do not separate [in belief and practice] from the largest group of the Muslims.”

The commentators have explained that the “largest group of the Muslims” here refers to the ijma` al-mujtahidin or consensus of major scholars.

Both the knowledge of the questions on which there is consensus, and that of the differences of opinions on the questions on which there isn’t, are requirements of Islamic scholarship. The first scholar to compile a list of questions on which there was consensus was Ibn al-Mundhir (d. 318) with his Kitab al-ijma` in which he lists 765 questions of worship and social transactions — leaving out doctrine — on which there is agreement not among 100% but among the majority of scholars, which is enough to form consensus according to the definition of Shafi`i and others such as Tabari (d. 310) and Abu Bakr al-Razi (d. 370). (Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini said that the questions on which there was consensus exceeded 20,000. However, the author of the more recent Mawsu`at al-ijma` fi al-fiqh al-islami [Encyclopedia of Consensus in Islamic Law] compiled a total of 9,588 questions.) Then Ibn Hazm (d. 456) authored Maratib al-ijma` in which he included matters of doctrine but for which he was criticized by Ibn Taymiyya in his Naqd maratib al-ijma` (pub. 1357 H) for claiming that he had compiled the questions on which there was unanimous agreement although he himself contradicts it many times. Suyuti’s (d. 911) Tashnif al-asma` bi masa’il al-ijma` was unfortunately lost.

Tirmidhi reports Ibn al-Mubarak’s view that jama`a means the concentration of the manners and knowledge of the Sunna in a living person (or group of persons) at any given time, i.e. without the necessity of their forming the congregation of Muslims. Abu Bakr ibn al-`Arabi remarks that this is one of the many meanings of the word, and that the most common meaning is that of congregation in the large sense.

Ibn Taymiyya has two contradictory views about ijma`. In the Mukhtasar al-fatawa al-misriyya (Cairo, 1980) he says:

Al-a’imma ijtima`uhum hujjatun qati`atun wa ikhtilafuhum rahmatun wasi`a: “The consensus of the Imams [of fiqh] on a question is a definitive proof, and their divergence of opinion is a vast mercy” (p. 35); and: “If one does not follow any of the four Imams [of fiqh]… then he is completely in error, for the truth is not found outside of these four in the whole shari`a” (p. 54).

In the second view Ibn Taymiyya departs from the above and divides the definition of ijma` into two kinds, a general one as expressed in views similar to the above, and a particular one to which he reserves particular adherence, which is that of the Salaf (Pious Predecessors). He says in his Aqida wasitiyya:

The Ahl al-Sunna… are also called Ahl al-Jama`a because jama`a (community) implies ijtima` (gathering), its opposite being furqa (separation), and the expression jama`a has become a name for people who share the same conviction, while ijma` (consensus) is the third principle (asl) on which knowledge of divine law (`ilm) and Religion (din) rest… Ijma` is defined as everything which people follow (jami` ma `alayh al-nas) in matters of religion. But the ijma` to which there is to be meticulous adherence is what the first pious generations (al-salaf al-salih) agreed upon, for after them divergences became numerous and the Community became spread out.

Note that he scatters the concept of ijma` between two diametrically opposed areas: the amorphous, unfalsifiable mass of “the people” on the one hand, and the bygone, crystallized era of the Salaf. The above departs from the position of all four schools, for whom the notion of ijma` is very much alive and rests on two fundamentals:

a) the consensus of Muslim scholars;

b) the consensus of Muslim scholars at any given time in history.

That Ibn Taymiyya particularly departed from the Hanbali school’s position is clear from Muwaffaq al-Din Ibn Qudama’s concept of ijma` in his al-Rawda fi usul al-fiqh as providing a categorical proof which permits of neither abrogation nor allegorical interpretation — unlike Qur’an and the Sunna — while Ibn Taymiyya rejects the notion that the Community is incapable of agreeing on an error. Perhaps this explains why he himself left ijma` alone on more questions than anyone else of those considered among Ahl al-Sunna before him, although Imam Ahmad said that for the single scholar to leave ijma` constitutes shudhudh (dissent and deviation). Ibn Taymiyya was severely brought to task for this by such scholars as Shaykh al-Islam al-hafiz Taqi al-Din al-Subki, al-hafiz al-`Izz ibn Jama`a, Shaykh al-Islam Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, Taqi al-Din al-Hisni al-Dimashqi, Imam al-San`ani (in Raf` al-astar), and others.

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Peace and Blessings upon the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions


© 2012 As-Sunnah Foundation of America

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