School of thought: Basic concept

Q586 :What is the concept behind having four imams and four schools of thought. What is their status and importance in our religion? Back home, people tend to make a great deal of belonging to these four schools of thought. Sometimes loudspeakers in these mosques are misused. To me, the situation is very confusing. It is so difficult to decide who is right and who is wrong. Please explain.

A586 : Each of the four scholars, who founded the schools of thought known after them, is simply a great scholar. He does not aspire to any higher position. None of them has added anything to the religion of Islam. None has a special status. None has made a claim to be followed. They are simply scholars of great eminence. They lived in the early period of Islam, with Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifah living toward the end of the first century and the first half of the second century, followed by Imam Al-Shaf'ie who lived in the second half of the second century and passed away in the year 204 H., and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal being his contemporary and surviving him to live for some time. A school of thought is all about method of construction and deduction of rulings and verdicts from Qur'anic and Hadith statements. Those four imams did not have the same frame of knowledge available to each one of them. They certainly learned the Qur'an properly, but their knowledge of Hadith differed and there were some differences in their approach to Hadith and how they deduced its meaning and applied it to practical situations. Each of them had students who became great scholars in their own right. This process was carried on, generation after generation. In each school of thought, you find scholars of great eminence who followed the same methods of construction and deduction, and applied them to problems and questions that arose in their own lifetimes. That gave each school of thought the sort of continuity which ensured a large following. I would like to make two points clear. The first is that there is nothing special about their number 'four'. There were many other eminent scholars, some of whom were contemporaries to those four. A most notable example was Imam Al-Laith ibn Sa'ad who lived in Egypt. He was a contemporary of Imam Malik, and many scholars consider him to have been even of higher merit than Malik. However, Imam Al-Laith did not establish a school of his own, because there were few, if any, of his students who could achieve a degree of prominence in their own right. But if we find a ruling given by Imam Al-Laith which is supported by firm evidence from the Qur'an or the Sunnah, then we may adopt it in the same way as we follow a ruling by any of the four imams. The second point is that in each of the four schools of thought we may find great scholars who differ on some specific questions with the founder of that school. There is no rigidity about following an imam in all questions and all matters. We may find a later scholar in a particular school of thought giving a different opinion from that of the founder of that school, and we find his opinion to be better supported. Therefore, we take that view without hesitation. A good example is the ruling given by Imam ibn Taimiyah, of the Hanbali school of thought, concerning divorce pronounced three times in the same session. He considers that as a single, revocable divorce, while Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the founder of that school, considers it as three divorces, which means that it is irrevocable. The family law in several Muslim countries has adopted the ruling given by Imam ibn Taimiyah which indeed relies on very strong evidence from the Sunnah. It is not necessary that a Muslim should follow a single school of thought. Indeed, this does not happen in practice. The division caused in your home country, and indeed in other Muslim countries, is simply due to ignorance. Had any of these four imams been alive today, he would have fought it with all his might. They were the first to admit that they were liable to error, and indeed each of them has made mistakes. I can tell you something more. There is no need to follow any of the four schools of thought. Indeed, many Muslims do not. This is because they have enough knowledge of Islam to be able to weigh the evidence supporting the view of each school. They can choose always the view supported by stronger evidence, regardless of which school of thought advocates that opinion.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )