Muslim Identity & Schools of Thought

Muslim Identity & Schools of Thought

Traditionally most Muslims have identified themselves with one of the four canonical schools of thought. They would even say things like: “I am a Shafi`ī” or “I am a Hanbalī”. Most of the time, this has been a mere practical identification with a certain approach to the finer points of Islamic observance. At other times, it became a competing identity rivalling that of being a Muslim.
At what point does affiliation with a particular school of thought pose a problem for a Muslim’s identification with the broader Muslim community?

To begin, it is certainly not a problem to merely identify with a particular school of thought. This can constitute part of an individual’s personal identity, like the educational institution where that person studied, or the particular approach that person takes to resolve difficulties in matters of Islamic Law for his or her personal observance of religious practices. The four imams and other leading Islamic scholars who established the various legal schools gave us a good example of how scholars could disagree academically without jeopardising the love and strong ties they had with each other.

A person’s identification with a particular school of thought only becomes problematic when it develops into chauvinism and partisanship that impairs how that person identifies with the Muslim community as a whole. When that identification goes so far that the person prefers the opinions expressed by the school of thought over the Qur’an and Sunnah, then it becomes truly reprehensible.

Throughout Muslim history, there were many times when which of the four canonical schools of thought a Muslim followed became the defining character of religious identity. When they said: “I am Hanafī” of “I am Mālikī” or “I am Shāfiʿī” or “I am Hanbalī”, echoing the names of their schools’ founders, they forgot that this was not all embracing, and that the only person a Muslim is obligated to follow in religious matters is Prophet Muhammad himself. It got to the point where scholars seriously discussed whether adherents of the different legal schools could marry one another!

Religious truth is not the monopoly of any school of thought. This cannot even be said for the four canonical schools of thought taken together. The totality and breadth of Islam cannot be contained within the narrow confines of those schools. History gives us many examples of people thinking outside the confines of those schools. There were scholars who called to abandoning the schools of thought or who warned against chauvinism to any one of them. There are also numerous examples of leading scholars within each of the schools who criticised adherence to their school’s recorded rulings at the expense of following evidence and reasoned arguments.

For instance, the Malikī scholar al-Mundhir b. Sa`īd al-Ballūtī declared: “I am clear of those who, when I ask for their proof, say: ‘That is what Mālik or Ashhab or Sahnūn said.’ When I mention something from the Qur’an, they say I am quarrelsome. When I quote them the words of the Prophet, they say Mālik did not deem that position to be correct.”

The chauvinism he complained about was exclusive to the Mālikī school of law. We read in one treatise on Hanafī legal theory: “Every statement in the sacred texts that contradicts with the (Hanafī) school of law is a text that has either been abrogated or has been righty re-interpreted.” [Usūl al-Sarakhsī]

Likewise, in a Shāfi`ī treatise on legal theory we can read: “We declare that it is the duty of all Muslims and believing people to the far reaches of the east and west to adopt the Shafi`ī school of law.” [al-Subkī, al-Ibhāj fī Sharh al-Minhāh]

We must certainly respect the four schools of law. They have provided the context for the study of Islamic Law throughout the Muslim world for more than ten centuries. In particular, the legal scholars whose teachings provided the foundation of those schools – Abū Hanīfah, Mālik, al-Shāfiʿī, and Ahmad b. Hanbal – are fully deserving of the unanimous recognition they have received as leading scholars in the field.

At the same time, we should never let our identification with any of these schools of law cause us to turn a blind eye to the correctness of other opinions, especially when it comes to the vital questions of our own day and time. We should never let our preference for a particular school of law interfere in how we relate to other people.


Sheikh Salman al-Oadah



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