Four Schools of Islamic Law

If Islam is one religion, how then we find different practices under the banner of four madh-habs, school of thoughts? Is this the reason of strain among the Ummah?

If we move forward in time, to our times, who are from the nation to whom Muhammad (ﷺ) was sent. We look among Muslims and we say Islam is one. However, we find different practices found in different parts of Muslim world.

Some of these practices are attributed to the different schools of Islamic Law – the Shafi’i, the Hanbali, the Maliki and the Hanafi. These are the well-known four schools, but there were many more in the past. The others are no longer known and these four became the basic common four schools of law followed by the Muslim world. The question raised that if Islam is one; is there more than one way to follow Islam? Why do we have four Schools of Law? For most Muslims today, it is a mystery. They do not really understand these four different schools, and what it actually means.

If we go back again in time from the present to the time of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), he sat on one occasion with his companions and he drew a line in the sand and then he drew lines on either side of this line like the veins of a leaf except these lines don’t really join the main line. He asked them, “Do you know what this is?” They replied, “Allah and His messenger know best.” He (ﷺ) said, “This line in the middle, this is the straight path, this is the path which I brought, the path that Allah has commanded you to walk. And these are the paths (pointing to the other lines) have at the end of them devils, devils calling people away from that straight path.” [1]. Then he (ﷺ) quoted a verse from the Qur'an:

Verily, this is My way, leading straight and so follow it; follow not (other) paths as they will scatter you about from His (great) path. Thus does He command you that you may be righteous.[2] 

Now at that time when the Prophet (ﷺ) gave this demonstration, he clarified here that the path of Islam is one path. Some people say that well, all roads lead to Rome, or we as Muslims say all roads lead to Makkah. And that becomes the excuse for everyone to do his or her own thing, find your own way there. However, that is not what the Prophet (ﷺ) left behind. He (ﷺ) left behind a clear way.

“I left you on a clear white plain whose day is like its night and anyone who deviates from it is destroyed.” [3]

 Therefore, he left a clear way; he left one way. His companions sought to follow that one way. Further he described it, he said,

“I left with you two things, if you hold on firmly to them you will never go astray   – the book of Allah and my sunnah” [4]

Hold on firmly to those and you will never go astray. This is what his companions sought to do, to hold on firmly to that foundation. That is what they taught the generations that followed them.

I am sure just as it is ludicrous to ask weather Adam was a Christian, it is as ludicrous to ask weather Abu Hurayrah was a Shafi’i. Would we agree on that one?

It is ludicrous to ask whether Abu Hurayrah, the companion of the prophet who narrated the largest number of his sayings, weather he was a Shafi’i. Why? Because Imam Shafi’i was not born until hundreds of years after Abu Hurayrah. He was not a Shafi’i, he was not Hanafi, and he was not a Maliki or Hanbali. He did not follow any of the four well-known schools of Islamic law. So what does that tell us? What school of Islamic law did he follow?

That is the one which we are supposed to be following because Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) has said,

“The best of people are of my generation, then those who follow them and then those who follow them…” [5]

The first three generations were the best of generations. If Abu Hurayrah wasn’t a Shafi’i and his students, the tabi’un, were they Shafi’i? No. In addition, their students, of the third generation, were they Shafi’i? No. So then what?

What does that tell us? That being a Shafi’i is not essential to being a Muslim following the right way. That is what that tells us. If the first three generations were not Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali or Maliki, then obviously it is not a requirement. They were the best of the generations.

If we accept that those first three generations did not follow the well-known school of Islamic law, we ask what was the way that they follow - to be able to understand and to practice true Islam. What was the way that they follow?

We have to say that way was the way of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). So their madh-hab was the madh-hab of Rasulullah  (ﷺ), the madh-hab of the Messenger or the Prophet of Allah. That is what the madh-hab means – a way, it means same as sunnah. Sunnah and madh-hab are synonyms, although we use them differently, in Arabic they are synonyms, madh-hab comes from dhahaba, dhahaba means to go, to walk. Madh-hab is the way you walk literally. Therefore, the way to understand true Islam that was followed by those first three generations was that of Muhammad (ﷺ), madh-hab of Rasulullah (ﷺ).

Then we go to the generation after them, and we ask what was the madh-hab of Abu Haneefah, or his contemporary, Imam Malik. What were their madh-habs? Was Abu Haneefah a Hanafi? Was Imam Malik a Maliki? Imam Malik’s student who studied under him for twenty years, Imam Shafi’i, was he a Maliki? Did he refer to himself as a Maliki or a Shafi’i? No, he did not. Alternatively, his student, Ahmed ibn Hanbal, his leading student, was he a Shafi’i or a Maliki or a Hanbali? No.

These terminologies were not used back then. They all understood that their efforts to understand Islam is to apply it in the day to day life dealing with family law, dealing with societal laws, applying the shari’ah in all walks of life. They understood that their efforts were to try to apply it as closely as possible in accordance with the way of Rasulullah (ﷺ). That is what they understood.

 If you were to ask Imam Shafi’i, what was your madh-hab? He would say it is the madh-hab of Rasulullah (ﷺ). That is why he is known for the statement, “If the hadith, the statement of prophet, is authentic, then that is my madh-hab.” That is the statement of the same thing. He is saying my madh-hab is whatever is authentically attributed to Rasulullah (ﷺ). That is what he is saying. In other words, his madh-hab was madh-hab of Rasulullah (ﷺ).

The same kinds of statements were attributed to Imam Abu Haneefah, Imam Malik as well as Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, the famous four founders of the four major schools of Islam Laws. They did not look at themselves as founder of schools. People generations later looked at them in that way, but that is not how they looked at themselves. They looked at themselves as scholars of their time who sought to apply the Qur'an and the Sunnah, which Prophet (ﷺ) said to hold on firmly to, as it was understood and conveyed by the best of generations. Their attempt was to try to apply that in their time.

Of course, with each generation there were changes that took place in human society. Human nature remained the same, and so basic laws that governed human nature did not require new interpretation. However, the texture of human society did go through certain changes.

New things occurred. Contact with other nations around the world took place. New ideas and practices entered in the Islamic nation. Therefore, others they had to address these issues. They had to apply the knowledge of the shari’ah to these issues to work out solutions and to give the ummah, the masses clarity with regards to new things which came before them. However, the whole time their madh-hab was the madh-hab of Rasulullah (ﷺ). What does that mean?

In practical terms, it means that our success in these times, hundreds of years, a thousand years later, will only come about when we go back to that understanding. As Imam Malik has said, “What it takes to fix the problems of the world in any particular time will be what it took at the beginning of the message. Whatever was offered by Rasulullah (ﷺ) as a solution for the problems of his time, this will remain the solution for all times. And we will not be able to solve our problems with any other way than that same way.”

So when Muslims stray from the understanding of that way, from the understanding of that generation of major scholars, their goals, we stray from the true path.


[1] [Musnad Ahmad, Number 4423]

[2] [Qur'an 6:153]

[3] [Ahmad, 4/126]

[4] [Muwatta, The Decree, 46.1.3]

[5] [Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Hadith # 437]

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