This is a 10-point summary-excerpt of Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller’s excellent treatise, titled “Why Muslims Follow Madhhabs“.
The work of the mujtahid Imams of Sacred Law, those who deduce shari‘a rulings from Qur’an and hadith, has been the object of my research for some years now, during which I have sometimes heard the question: “Who needs the Imams of Sacred Law when we have the Qur’an and hadith? Why can’t we take our Islam from the word of Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), which are divinely protected from error, instead of taking it from the madhhabs or “schools of jurisprudence” of the mujtahid Imams such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi‘i, and Ahmad, which are not?”
2. “Why can’t I interpret the Qur’an and hadiths on my own?”
I had a visitor one day in Jordan, for example, who, when we talked about why he hadn’t yet gone on hajj, mentioned the hadith of Anas ibn Malik that
the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Whoever prays the dawn prayer (fajr) in a group and then sits and does dhikr until the sun rises, then prays two rak‘as, shall have the like of the reward of a hajj and an ‘umra.” Anas said, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: ‘Completely, completely, completely’” (Tirmidhi, 2.481).
My visitor had done just that this very morning, and he now believed that he had fulfilled his obligation to perform the hajj, and had no need to go to Mecca. The hadith was well authenticated (hasan). I distinguished for my visitor between having the reward of something, and lifting the obligation of Islam by actually doing it, and he saw my point.
But there is a larger lesson here, that while the Qur’an and the sunna are ma‘sum or “divinely protected from error,” the understanding of them is not. And someone who derives rulings from the Qur’an and hadith without training in ijtihad or “deduction from primary texts” as my visitor did, will be responsible for it on the Day of Judgment.
3. “But I’m different! I understand some Arabic, and have access to translated verses. I can base my rational judgment on my personal understanding.”
Not that easy. There are requirements to fulfill.
…there should be a category of people who have learned the religion so as to be qualified in turn to teach it. And Allah has commanded those who do not know a ruling in Sacred Law to ask those who do, by saying in surat al-Nahl,
“Ask those who recall if you know not” (Qur’an 16:43),
in which the words “those who recall,” ahl al-dhikri, indicate those with knowledge of the Qur’an and sunna, at their forefront the mujtahid Imams of this Umma. Why? Because, first of all, the Qur’an and hadith are in Arabic, and as a translator, I can assure you that it is not just any Arabic.
4. “What Arabic is it then?”
To understand the Qur’an and sunna, the mujtahid must have complete knowledge of the Arabic language in the same capacity as the early Arabs themselves had before the language came to be used by non-native speakers.
5. “Yet we all have our Yusuf ‘Ali Qur’ans, and our Sahih al-Bukhari translations. Aren’t these adequate scholarly resources?”
These are valuable books, and do convey perhaps the largest and most important part of our din: the basic Islamic beliefs, and general laws of the religion. Our discussion here is not about these broad principles, but rather about understanding specific details of Islamic practice, which is called precisely fiqh. For this, I think any honest investigator who studies the issues will agree that the English translations are not enough. They are not enough because understanding the total Qur’an and hadith textual corpus, which comprises what we call the din, requires two dimensions in a scholar: a dimension of breadth, the substantive knowledge of all the texts; and a dimension of depth, the methodological tools needed to join between all the Qur’anic verses and hadiths, even those that ostensibly contradict one another.
6. “So exactly how much do I need to know?”
As for the breadth of a mujtahid’s knowledge, it is recorded that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s student Muhammad ibn ‘Ubaydullah ibn al-Munadi heard a man ask him [Imam Ahmad]:
“When a man has memorized 100,000 hadiths, is he a scholar of Sacred Law, a faqih?” And he said, “No.” The man asked, “200,000 then?” And he said, “No.” The man asked, “Then 300,000?” And he said, “No.” The man asked, “400,000?” And Ahmad gestured with his hand to signify “about that many.” (Ibn al-Qayyim: I‘lam al-muwaqqi‘in, 4.205).
7. Not only that, the various categories of hadiths must also be considered, and one must also know where to look for them in the first place.
…Even if we eliminate the different chains, and speak only about the hadiths from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) that are plainly acceptable as evidence, whether sahih, “rigorously authenticated” or hasan “well authenticated” (which for purposes of ijtihad, may be assimilated to the sahih), we are still speaking of well over 10,000 hadiths, and they are not contained in Bukhari alone, or in Bukhari and Muslim alone, nor yet in any six books, or even in any nine.
8. And when one finds and understands all the hadiths, he must be able to view them in a holistic, bird’s-eye view so as to find what all the various meanings reveal.
“The food of those who have been given the Book is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them” (Qur’an 5:5).
This is a general ruling ostensibly pertaining to all their food. Yet this ruling is subject to takhsis, or “restriction” by more specific rulings that prove that certain foods of Ahl al-Kitab, “those who have been given the Book,” such as pork, or animals not properly slaughtered, are not lawful for us.
Ignorance of this principle of takhsis or restriction seems to be especially common among would-be mujtahids of our times, from whom we often hear the more general ruling in the words “But the Qur’an says,” or “But the hadith says,” without any mention of the more particular ruling from a different hadith or Qur’anic versethat restricts it. The reply can only be “Yes, brother, the Qur’an does say, ‘The food of those who have been given the Book is lawful for you,’ But what else does it say?” or “Yes, the hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari says the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) bared his thigh on the return from Khaybar. But what else do the hadiths say, and more importantly, are you sure you know it?”
There are several other beautiful and equally technical examples in the full text.
9. What about Imam al-Shafi’i’s famous quote that I can just follow a sahih (authentic) hadith instead of his mazhab?
“When a hadith is sahih, it is my school (madhhab)” …has been misunderstood by some to mean that if one finds a hadith, for example, in Sahih al-Bukhari that is inconsistent with a position of Shafi‘i’s, one should presume that he was ignorant of it, drop the fiqh, and accept the hadith.
…Shafi‘i is referring to hadiths that he was previously unaware of and that mujtahid scholars know him to have been unaware of when he gave a particular ruling. And this, as Imam Nawawi has said, “is very difficult,” for Shafi‘i was aware of a great deal. We have heard the opinion of Shafi‘i’s student Ahmad ibn Hanbal about how many hadiths a faqih (fiqh scholar) must know, and he unquestionably considered Shafi‘i to be such a scholar, for Shafi‘i was his sheikh in fiqh. Ibn Khuzayma, known as “the Imam of Imams” in hadith memorization, was once asked, “Do you know of any rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith that Shafi‘i did not place in his books?” And he said “No” (Nawawi: al-Majmu‘, 1.10). And Imam Dhahabi has said, “Shafi‘i did not make a single mistake about a hadith” (Ibn Subki: Tabaqat al-Shafi‘iyya, 9.114). It is clear from all of this that Imam Shafi‘i’s statement “When a hadith is sahih, it is my position” only makes sense — and could result in meaningful corrections — if addressed to scholars at a level of hadith mastery comparable to his own.
10. In conclusion…
As for would-be mujtahids who know some Arabic and are armed with books of hadith, they are like the would-be doctor we mentioned earlier: if his only qualification were that he could read English and owned some medical books, we would certainly object to his practicing medicine, even if it were no more than operating on someone’s little finger. So what should be said of someone who knows only Arabic and has some books of hadith, and wants to operate on your akhira?
To understand why Muslims follow madhhabs, we have to go beyond simplistic slogans about “the divinely-protected versus the non-divinely-protected,” and appreciate the Imams of fiqh who have operationalized the Qur’an and sunna to apply in our lives as shari‘a, and we must ask ourselves if we really “hear and obey” when Allah tells us
“Ask those who know if you know not” (Qur’an 16:43).
It’s worth the read. Trust me.