Why Does One have to follow a madhhab?

Debate Between Muhammad Sa'id al-Buti and a Leading Salafi Teacher (c) Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995

Buti: “What is your method for understanding the rulings of Allah? Do you take them from the Qur’an and sunna, or from the Imams of ijtihad?” 
  
Salafi: “I examine the positions of the Imams and their evidences for them, and then take the closest of them to the evidence of the Qur’an and Sunna.” 

Buti: “You have five thousand Syrian pounds that you have saved for six months. You then buy merchandise and begin trading with it. When do you pay zakat on the merchandise, after six months, or after one year?” 

Salafi: [He thought, and said,] “Your question implies you believe zakat should be paid on business capital.” 

Buti: “I am just asking. You should answer in your own way. Here in front of you is a library containing books of Qur’anic exegesis, hadith, and the works of the mujtahid Imams.” 

Salafi: [He reflected for a moment, then said,] “Brother, this is din, and not simple matter. One could answer from the top of one’s head, but it would require thought, research, and study; all of which take time. And we have come to discuss something else.” 

Buti: I dropped the question and said, “All right. Is it obligatory for every Muslim to examine the evidences for the positions of the Imams, and adopt the closest of them to the Qur’an and Sunna?” 

Salafi: “Yes.” 

Buti: “This means that all people possess the same capacity for ijtihad that the Imams of the madhhabs have; or even greater, since without a doubt, anyone who can judge the positions of the Imams and evaluate them according to the measure of the Qur’an and sunna must know more than all of them.” 

Salafi: He said, “In reality, people are of three categories: the muqallid or ‘follower of qualified scholarship without knowing the primary textual evidence (of Qur’an and hadith)’; the muttabi‘, or ‘follower of primary textual evidence’; and the mujtahid, or scholar who can deduce rulings directly from the primary textual evidence (ijtihad). He who compares between madhhabs and chooses the closest of them to the Qur’an is a muttabi‘, a follower of primary textual evidence, which is an intermediate degree between following scholarship (taqlid) and deducing rulings from primary texts (ijtihad).” 

Buti: “Then what is the follower of scholarship (muqallid) obliged to do?” 

Salafi: “To follow the mujtahid he agrees with.” 

Buti: “Is there any difficulty in his following one of them, adhering to him, and not changing?” 

Salafi: “Yes there is. It is unlawful (haram).” 

Buti: “What is the proof that it is unlawful?” 

Salafi: “The proof is that he is obliging himself to do something Allah Mighty and Majestic has not obligated him to.” 

Buti: I said, “Which of the seven canonical readings (qira’at) do you recite the Qur’an in?” 

Salafi: “That of Hafs.” 

Buti: “Do you recite only in it, or in a different canonical reading each day.” 

Salafi: “No, I recite only in it.” 

Buti: “Why do you read only it when Allah Mighty and Majestic has not obliged you to do anything except to recite the Qur’an as it has been conveyed—with the total certainty of tawatur (being conveyed by witnesses so numerous at every stage of transmission that their sheer numbers obviate the possibility of forgery or alteration), from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)?” 

Salafi: “Because I have not had a opportunity to study other canonical readings, or recite the Qur’an except in this way.” 

Buti: “But the individual who learns the fiqh of the Shafi‘i school—he too has not been able to study other madhhabs or had the opportunity to understand the rules of his religion except from this Imam. So if you say that he must know all the ijtihads of the Imams so as to go by all of them, it follows that you too must learn all the canonical readings so as to recite in all of them. And if you excuse yourself because you cannot, you should excuse him also. In any case, what I say is: where did you get that it is obligatory for a follower of scholarship (muqallid) to keep changing from one madhhab to another, when Allah has not obliged him to? That is, just as he is not obliged to adhere to a particular madhhab, neither is he obliged to keep changing.” 

Salafi: “What is unlawful for him is adhering to one while believing that Allah has commanded him to do so.” 

Buti: “That is something else, and is true without a doubt and without any disagreement among scholars. But is there any problem with his following a particular mujtahid, knowing that Allah has not obliged him to do that?” 

Salafi: “There is no problem.” 

Buti: [Al-Khajnadi’s] al-Karras, which you teach from, contradicts you. It says this is unlawful, in some places actually asserting that someone who adheres to a particular Imam and no other is an unbeliever (kafir).” 

Salafi: He said, “Where?” and then began looking at the Karras, considering its texts and expressions, reflecting on the words of the author “Whoever follows one of them in particular in all questions is a blind, imitating, mistaken bigot, and is “among those who have divided their religion and are parties” [Qur’an 30:32]. He said, “By follows, he means someone who believes it legally obligatory for him to do so. The wording is a little incomplete.”  
  
Buti: I said, “What evidence is there that that’s what he meant? Why don’t you just say the author was mistaken?” 

Salafi: He insisted that the expression was correct, that it should be understood as containing an unexpressed condition [i.e. “provided one believes it is legally obligatory”], and he exonerated the writer from any mistake in it. 

Buti: I said, “But interpreted in this fashion, the expression does not address any opponent or have any significance. Not a single Muslim is unaware that following such and such a particular Imam is not legally obligatory. No Muslim does so except from his own free will and choice.” 

Salafi: “How should this be, when I hear from many common people and some scholars that it is legally obligatory to follow one particular school, and that a person may not change to another?” 

Buti: “Name one person from the ordinary people or scholars who said that to you.” 

 He said nothing, and seemed surprised that what I said could be true, and kept repeating that he had thought that many people considered it unlawful to change from one madhhab to another. 

I said, “You won’t find anyone today who believes this misconception, though it is related from the latter times of the Ottoman period that they considered a Hanafi changing from his own school to another to be an enormity. And without a doubt, if true, this was something that was complete nonsense from them; a blind, hateful bigotry.” 

 I then said, “Where did you get this distinction between the muqallid “follower of scholarship” and the muttabi‘ “follower of evidence”: Is there a original, lexical distinction [in the Arabic language], or is it merely terminological?” 

Salafi: “There is a lexical difference.” 

Buti: I brought him lexicons with which to establish the lexical difference between the two words, and he could not find anything. I then said: “Abu Bakr (Allah be well pleased with him) said to a desert Arab who had objected to the alotment for him agreed upon by the Muslims, ‘If the Emigrants accept, you are but followers’—using the word "followers" (tabi‘) to mean ‘without any prerogative to consider, question, or discuss.’” (Similar to this is the word of Allah Most High, “When those who were followed (uttubi‘u) disown those those who followed (attaba‘u) upon seeing the torment, and their relations are sundered” (Qur’an 2:166), which uses follow (ittiba‘) for the most basic blind imitation).  

Salafi: He said, “Then let it be a technical difference: don’t I have a right to establish a terminological usage?” 

Buti: “Of course. But this term of yours does not alter the facts. This person you term a muttabi‘ (follower of scholarly evidence) will either be an expert in evidences and the means of textual deduction from them, in which case he is a mujtahid. Or, if not an expert or unable to deduce rulings from them, then he is muqallid (follower of scholarly conclusions). And if he is one of these on some questions, and the other on others, then he is a muqallid for some and a mujtahid for others. In any case, it is an either-or distinction, and the ruling for each is clear and plain.” 

Salafi: He said, “The muttabi‘ is someone able to distinguish between scholarly positions and the evidences for them, and to judge one to be stronger than others. This is a level different to merely accepting scholarly conclusions. 

Buti: “If you mean,” I said, “by distinguishing between positions differentiating them according to the strength or weakness of the evidence, this is the highest level of ijtihad. Are you personally able to do this?” 

Salafi: “I do so as much as I can.” 

Buti: “I am aware,” I said, “that you give as a fatwas that a three fold pronouncement of divorce on a single occasion only counts as one time. Did you check, before this fatwa of yours, the positions of the Imams and their evidences on this, then differentiate between them, so to give the fatwa accordingly? Now, ‘Uwaymir al-‘Ajlani pronounced a three fold divorce at one time in the presence of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) after he had made public imprecation against her for adultery (li‘an), saying, ‘If I retain her, O Messenger of Allah, I will have lied against her: she is [hereby] thrice divorced.’ What do you know about this hadith and its relation to this question, and its bearing as evidence for the position of the scholarly majority [that a threefold divorce pronounced on a single occasion is legally finalized and binding] as opposed to the position of Ibn Taymiya [that a threefold divorce on a single occasion only counts as once]?” 

Salafi: “I did not know this hadith.” 

Buti: “Then how could you give a fatwa on this question that contradicts what the four madhhabs unanimously concur upon, without even knowing their evidence, or how strong or weak it was? Here you are, discarding the principle you say you have enjoined on yourself and mean to enjoin on us, the principle of “following scholarly evidence (ittiba‘)” in the meaning you have terminologically adopted.” 

Salafi: “At the time I didn’t own enough books to review the positions of the Imams and their evidence.” 

Buti: “Then what made you rush into giving a fatwa contravening the vast majority of Muslims, when you hadn’t even seen any of their evidences?” 

Salafi: “What else could I do? I asked and I only had a limited amount of scholarly resources.” 

Buti: “You could have done what all scholars and Imams have done; namely, say “I didn’t know,” or told the questioner the postition of both the four madhhabs and the postion of those who contravene them; without givng a fatwa for either side. You could have done this, or rather, this was what was obligatory for you, especially since the poblem was not personally yours so as to force you to reach some solution or another. As for your giving a fatwa contradicting the consensus (ijma‘) of the four Imams without knowing—by your own admission—their evidences, sufficing yourself with the agreement in your heart for the evidences of the opposition, this is the very utmost of the kind of bigotry you accuse us of.” 

Salafi: “I read the Imams’ opinions in [Nayl al-awtar, by] Shawkani, Subul al-salam [by al-Amir al-San‘ani], and Fiqh al-sunna by Sayyid Sabiq.” 

Buti: These are the books of the opponents of the four Imams on this question. All of them speak from one side of the question, mentioning the proofs that buttress their side. Would you be willing to judge one litigant on the basis of his words alone, and that of his witnesses and relatives?” 

Salafi: I see nothing blameworthy in what I have done. I was obliged to give the questioner an answer, and this was as much as I was able to reach with my understanding.” 

Buti: “You say you are a “follower of scholarly evidence (muttabi‘)” and we should all be likewise. You have explained “following evidence” as reviewing the positions of all madhhabs, studying their evidences, and adopting the closest of them to the correct evidence—while in doing what you have done, you have discarded the principle completely. You know that the unanimous consensus of the four madhhabs is that a threefold pronouncement of divorce on one occasion counts as a three fold, finalized divorce, and you know that they have evidences for this that you arae unaware of, despite which you turn from their consensus to the opinion that your personal preference desires. Were you certain beforehand that the evidence of the four Imams deserved to be rejected?” 

Salafi: No; but I wasn’t aware of them, since I didn’t have any reference works on them.” 

Buti: “Then why didn’t you wait? Why rush into it, when Allah never obligated you to do anything of the sort? Was your not knowing the evidences of the scholarly majority a proof tht Ibn Taymiya was right? Is the bigotry you wrongly accuse us of anything besides this?” 

Salafi: “I read evidences in the books available to me that convinced me. Allah has not enjoined me to do more than that.” 

Buti: “If a Muslim sees a proof for something in a the books he reads, is that a sufficient reason to disregard the madhhabs that contradict his understanding, even if he doesn’t know their evidences?” 

Salafi: “It is sufficient.” 

Buti: “A young man, newly religious, without any Islamic education, reads the word of Allah Most High “To Allah belongs the place where the sun rises and where it sets: wherever you turn, there is the countenance of Allah. Verily, Allah is the All-encompassing, the All-knowing (Qur’an 2:115), and gathers from it that a Muslim may face any direction he wishes in his prescribed prayers, as the ostensive purport of the verse implies. But he has heard that the four Imams unanimously concur upon the necessity of his facing towards the Kaaba, and he knows they have evidences for it that he is unaware of. What should he do when he wants to pray? Should he follow his conviction from the evidence available to him, or follow the Imam who unanimously concur on the contrary of what he has understood?” 

Salafi: “He should follow his conviction.” 

Buti: “And pray towards the east for example. And his prayer would be legally valid?” 

Salafi: “Yes. He is morally responsible for following his personal conviction.” 

Buti: “What if his personal conviction leads him to believe there is no harm in making love to his neighbor’s wife, or to fill his belly with wine, or wrongfully take others’ property: will all this be mitigated in Allah’s reckoning by “personal conviction”? 

Salafi: [He was silent for a moment, then said,] “Anyway, the examples you ask about are all fantasies that do not occur.” 

Buti: “They are not fantasies; how often the like of them occurs, or even stranger. A young man without any knowledge of Islam, its Book, its sunna, who happens to hear or read this verse by chance, and understands from it what any Arab would from its owtward purport, that there is no harm in someone praying facing any direction he wants—despite seeing people’s facing towards the Kaaba rather than any other direction. This is an ordinary matter, theoretically and practically, as long as there are those among Muslims who don’t know a thing about Islam. In any event, you have pronounced upon this example—imaginary or real—a judgement that is not imaginary, and have judged “personal conviction” to be the decisive criterion in any event. This contradicts your differentiating people into three groups: followers of scholars without knowing their evidence (muqallidin), followers of scholars’ evidence (muttabi‘in), and mujtahids.” 

Salafi: “Such a person is obliged to investigate. Didn’t he read any hadith, or any other Qur’anic verse?” 

Buti: He didn’t have any reference works available to him, just as you didn’t have any when you gave your fatwa on the question of [threefold] divorce. And he was unable to read anything other than this verse connected with facing the qibla and its obligatory character. Do you still insist that he must follow his personal conviction and disregard the Imams’ consensus?” 

Salafi: “Yes. If he is unable to evaluate and investigate further, he is excused, and it is enough for him to rely on the conclusions his evaluation and investigation lead him to.” 

Buti: “I intend to publish these remarks as yours. They are dangerous, and strange.” 

Salafi: “Publish whatever you want. I’m not afraid.” 

Buti: “How should you be afraid of me, when you are not afraid of Allah Mighty and Majestic, utterly discarding by these words the word of Allah Mighty and Majestic [in Sura al-Nahl] ‘Ask those who recall if you know not’ (Qur’an 16:43).” 

Salafi: “My brother,” he said, “These Imams are not divinely protected from error (ma‘sum). As for the Quranic verse that this person followed [in praying any direction], it is the word of Him Who Is Protected from All Error, may His glory be exalted. How should he leave the divinely protected and attach himself to the tail of the non-divinely-protected?” 

Buti: “Good man, what is divinely protected from error is the true meaning that Allah intended by saying, “To Allah belongs the place where the sun rises and where it sets . . .”—not the understanding of the young man who is as far as can be from knowing Islam, its rulings, and the nature of its Qur’an. That is to say, the comparison I am asking you to make is between two understandings: the understanding of this ignorant youth, and the understanding of the mujtahid Imams, neither of which is divinely protected from error, but one of which is rooted in ignorance and superficiality, and the other of which is rooted in investigation, knowledge, and accuracy.” 

Salafi: “Allah does not make him responsible for more than his effort can do.” 

Buti: “Then answer me this question. A man has a child who suffers from some infections, and is under the care of all the doctors in town, who agree he should have a certain medicine, and warn his father against giving him an injection of penicillin, and that if he does, he will be exposing the child’s life to destruction. Now, the father knows from having read a medical publication that penicillin helps in cases of infection. So he relies on his own knowledge about it, disregards the advice of the doctors since he doesn’t know the proof for what they say, and employing instead his own personal conviction, treats the child with a penicillin injection, and thereafter the child dies. Should such a person be tried, and is he guilty of a wrong for what he did, or not?” 

Salafi: [He thought for a moment and then said,] “This is not the same as that.” 

Buti: “It is exactly the same. The father has heard the unanimous judgement of the doctors, just as the young man has heard the unanimous judgement of the Imams. One has followed a single text he read in a medical publication, the other has followed a single text he has read in the Book of Allah Mighty and and Majestic. This one has gone by personal conviction, and so has that.” 

Salafi: “Brother, the Qur’an is light. Light. In its clarity as evidence, is light like any other words?” 

Buti: “And the light of the Qur’an is reflected by anyone who looks into it or recites it, such that he understands it as light, as Allah meant it? Then what is the difference between those who recall [Qur’an 16:43] and anyone else, as long as all partake of this light? Rather, the two above examples are comparable, there is no difference between them at all; you must answer me: does the person investigating—in each of the two examples—follow his personal conviction, or does he follow and imitate specialists?” 

Salafi: “Personal conviction is the basis.” 

Buti: “He used personal conviction, and it resulted in the death of the child. Does this entail any responsibility, moral or legal?” 

Salafi: “It doesn’t entail any responsibility at all.” 
  
Buti: I said, “Then let us end the investigation and discussion on this last remark of yours, since it closes the way to any common ground between you and me on which we can base a discussion. It is sufficient that with this bizarre answer of yours, you have departed from the consensus of the entire Islamic religion. By Allah, there is no meaning on the face of the earth for disgusting bigotry if it is not what you people have” (al-Lamadhhabiyya (b01), 99–108). 

Buti concludes the story by saying 
I do not know then, why these people don’t just let us be, to use our own “personal conviction” that someone ignorant of the rules of religion and the proofs for them must adhere to one of the mujtahid Imams, imitating him because of the latter’s being more aware than himself of the Book of Allah and sunna of His messenger. Whatever the mistake in this opinion in their view let it be given the general amnesty of “personal conviction.” like the example of him who turns his back to the qibla and is his prayer is valid, or him who kills a child and the killing is “ijtihad” and “medical treatment” (ibid. 108).


What is a Madhhab and Why is it Necessary to Follow one? 

Shaikh Murabtal Haaj's Fatwa 

Understanding the Four Madhhabs 



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