Mazhab (School of Jurisprudence).... Follow or not to follow? This is a very delicate issue. I would like to share my thoughts on it, hopefully to get the correct message across. Firstly, I’d like to say: Please do not belittle the mazhabs! The mazhabs are guides for muslims to understand Islam. It is part of fulfilling the command of Allah: "So ask the people of knowledge (Ahl al-Zikr) if you do not know." [17:36] The people of knowledge, are well-trained and knowledgable people, who master the tools of ijtihad, not for anyone to delve into.
So, the big question: must we follow the mazhab? Are we prohibited from deviating from our mazhab? What I’d like to say here was inspired by the statement of Imam ash-Shawkani (rahimahullah), available at length in his book (Al-Badr at-Taali’ bimahasin man ba’da al-Qarni as-Saabi’), a great scholar of Yemen (d. 1250h):
“By Allah, How strange when the beginning of a scholar is like his final, and the end of his affair is like his start. So tell me: What is the benefit of wasting time in learning these knowledge (tools of ijtihad) then!?”
My comment: That was in response to one saying door of ijtihad is closed and stick to the four mazhabs. Scholars of the past and present have written many books detailing the traits of a mujtahid. Scholars of the past and present have written many books detailing the tools of ijtihad. Scholars of the past and present have written many books detailing fiqh issues, often commenting on the Imams’ positions in all matters of fiqh. Scholars of the past and present have never stopped teaching their students these traits of mujtahid, tools of ijtihad and detailed fiqh issues and arguments.
Can you imagine a student of knowledge who went through all the levels of studies to obtain vast knowledge and understanding of Islam, and details of its fiqh, going through all the books scholars have written in the past and present, under guidance and supervision of scholars (teachers). But at the end, when he has reached a very high level and become a scholar in his own right, he is not allowed to use those tools and knowledge to derive from the sources of shariah?! In other words, if after all that, he still must taqlid one of the 4 Imams, then what’s the difference between his start and his end? What’s the difference between him and the layman?
Yes, I’m talking about scholars who have mastered the tools of Ijtihad, they must follow the truth when they know a certain mazhab or opinion he has been following is contradicting clear text. They must make ijtihad when they face new issues without clear texts. And they must give the correct opinion according to the knowledge and ijtihad when asked by a layman. Yes, a layman must ask the people of knowledge, based on the verse mentioned above:
"So ask the people of knowledge (Ahl al-Zikr) if you do not know."
Question: When the layman asks a scholar, what must the scholar do? Answers based on the layman’s mazhab or answer truthfully according to the correct opinion in his view?
If he answers according to the weaker opinion (if his mazhab is the weaker opinion), then he has betrayed Allah for hiding the truth! So he is required to answer the correct or best opinion, even if it goes against his own mazhab.
Question: After hearing the answer, can the layman refuse to follow the scholar’s answer?
No, he must follow even if it contradicts his mazhab. Makes no sense that Allah commands the layman to ask the people of knowledge and not be binded by the answer. Because the layman simply does not know. Any mistake (if intentional) is upon the scholar, not the layman.
And the qualified scholar, after striving to attain the truthful answer, will attain two rewards for correct answer and one reward for incorrect answer. Whereas the layman has done what is required of him when he asked and followed the answer of the scholar.
Students of knowledge are in different levels between the layman and scholars. They follow not mere statements, but they need to know the proofs from Quran and Sunnah. They may reach position of ijtihad in specific matters if well-researched and understood, under proper supervision.
In short, man fall under three categories with regards to knowledge:
1) Layman – must ask scholar whom he trusts (measured based on the scholars knowledge and taqwa) and must follow.
2) Student of knowledge – learn by seeking proofs of scholar’s opinion and follow the best opinion if able to differentiate and understand specific issues completely.
3) Mujtahid (Muslim Jurist) – must take from the sources and make ijtihad, unless in dire necessity. Mujtahid can be divided into several levels too.
Note: Usually layman starts of within a school of jurisprudence or mazhab (although not necessarily), then becomes a student of knowledge as he continues to learn the knowledge of the Deen, and then slowly developing knowledge of comparison between mazhabs, and then, if given the tawfiq by Allah, he will move to the next level, the Mujtahid.
And I say not necessarily to start with a mazhab, because some scholars started off learning Quran and Hadith instead of mazhab. We cannot prohibit this way because this was the way the salaf learnt Islam. Later, when the mazhabs became known, the students of knowledge started learning within a school of thought and develop to be mujtahidun (jurists).
In any case, they learn how to understand the religion benefiting from all the Imams of mazhabs and other scholars.
My advice: Engage in learning the religion, and make yourself either a student of knowledge or a scholar, to the best of your ability. Why? The prophet’s advice:
“This world is cursed, and cursed are those things (that take you away from Allah) in this world, except for remembrance of Allah, and whatever brings you closer to remembrance of Allah, or the ‘aalim (scholar) or the student of knowledge.”
[Tirmizi, Ibn Majah and al-Bayhaqi]
I end here with the statement of Imam an-Nawawi, the great Shafie scholar, in al-Majmu’ Sharh al-Muhazzab:
Shaikh Abu ‘Amr (Ibn as-Salaah) says: “Whoever among the Shafi’is found a hadeeth contradicting his mazhab, he would consider whether he fulfilled the conditions of ijtihad generally, or in that particular topic or issue, in which case he would be free to act on the hadeeth. If not, and he found it hard to justify for opposing the hadeeth after further research and he did not find a convincing answer, then he can act upon it (the hadeeth) if an independent Imam other the Shafi’e had acted on it, and this would be justification for his leaving the Mazhab of his Imam in this issue.”
What he (Abu ‘Amr) said is correct and binding. Allah knows best.
[End of quote]