02 ديسمبر, 2022 - 8 Jumada al-Ula 1444

The Schools of Law and Their Importance

The Schools of Law and Their Importance

  It is clear amongst the Muslim community today that there exists a subpar level of understanding some of the basics of the religion. Many among the community may not realize their ignorance and how it effects their belief in the Divine, their family’s belief, and ultimately the detrimental effect it has upon the community.
One of the benefits of the schools of law or Maddhahib is that it is a holistic way of learning and understanding one’s faith. For example, in a school of law one might not only find information on Islamic Law, but also information pertaining to theology and purification of the heart. So by ascribing to a school and studying it, one would attain all of what would be needed to know in building a strong foundation for themselves.
Islamic law is of the most significant aspects of our faith, as it is how we as servants of the Divine aim to stay within the righteous and lush gardens of servitude. These gardens, if God wills, grant us the glance of pleasure from the Divine. While it is true that the Quran and traditions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) are certainly accessible for those whose hearts are pure and minds undiluted, the best of people suited for interpreting Islamic law are those who have spent a lifetime doing so. Those men and women who dedicate themselves to not only understanding the rulings, but established paths of study to help bring the laymen to the level of scholarship. The term school of law comes from the Arabic term, Madhhab, which at its root means a path to traverse.

Misconceptions on schools of law

One may be confused and ask, why are there various paths found in Islam, isn’t this akin to the various denominations of Christianity or other faith groups? The core difference here is that these paths all agree upon the core, they all utilize the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet (God’s peace and blessings upon him). They also agree upon other means of understanding the primary sources such as using analogy and juristic discretion. What should be understood is that though the paths are different, they all begin and end in the same location. The concept of having varying opinions on a subject has been the case since the very inception of Islam. The early companions would often view certain detailed nuances differently and come to different rulings. They would then teach their students based on their opinions. For example, Aisha, our spiritual mother (may God be pleased with her) is known as one of the greatest scholars from among the companions. She too differed in her opinions and would make her opinions known to other companions who differed with her. She went on to teach both men and women, and scholars like Amra bint Abdul Rahman (God be pleased with her) were raised learning from Aisha until she also became a prolific scholar in her era. This passing of knowledge is one of the goals of the schools of law.
Some may also ask, is it obligatory for a Muslim to follow a school of law, and how does one choose one? Those who ask this well-intentioned question feel that it would be much easier to simply open the Quran and read through the traditions of the Prophet (may God be pleased with him) in an effort to better understand their faith. However, what they may fail to realize is the vastness of the Quran and the compiled volumes of traditions. Where does one begin? It must be said that the Quran and prophetic traditions are accessible to people, and whoever disagrees with this statement is neglecting the fact that the Quran and prophetic tradition is for all of humanity. The everyday Muslim is able to benefit and take away lessons on the proper way to live their life, how to inculcate our elevated and dignified system of ethics, and the basic beliefs of who God is, His Prophets, etc. However, when it comes to the detailed nuances of specific acts of worship and how we understand them contemporarily, that takes a person who has a deep understanding of the religion and the scriptures. For example, what of the verses and traditions that have been abrogated, or those verses that take an elevated level of linguistics to comprehend? What of knowing the cultural context of those traditions, or the various levels of the traditions, such as those that are rigorously authenticated (saheeh), well-authenticated (hasan), weak (da’if) and the various channels of transmission (riwayat) of those traditions? Ibn Wahb, a contemporary of Imam Malik said about him, “Were it not for Imam Malik and Al-Layth ibn Sa’d I would have been confused in regards to which prophetic traditions were to be acted upon and which to be left” (Siyaar A’lam an-Nubala).
And We sent not before you except men to whom We revealed [Our message]. So ask the people of the message if you do not know (Quran 16:43). This verse reminds the believers that when in doubt there are people that we can turn to in attempting to understand our religion. Those who would rather speak directly on behalf of God and His Messenger without first solidifying themselves in the basic sciences of Islam not only commit a travesty to themselves but also to those that listen to them. In short, the following of a school gives a person the ability to depend upon someone who has done the work, and the generations of scholars who have revised and refined that work. And for those that have unfortunately been subjected to followers of schools who are harsh in their understanding and practice, do not allow them to defame the schools. Do not be of those who declare that they would rather not follow a school so as to avoid this harshness. The same logic can be applied to the following of Islam. Are there not a plethora of people who practice Islam in such harsh and abusive ways that by this logic we should also leave behind the practice of Islam because of them? However, we know that we cannot judge Islam based on the actions of the ignorant, nor can we judge the schools of law -through which we understand Islam- by the actions of the ignorant.
In discussing the Imams of the four great schools it is important to note that a major characteristic that is most often found within these men and women is God consciousness. Today when we think and discuss Islam we discuss its external aspects and forget the internal, the spiritual component that it brings forth. For example, the one given the title of the greatest Imam would be the great Imam Abu Hanifa (God be pleased with him) of Kufa (in Iraq). Today his school is followed by the vast majority of the Muslim world. When speaking about his life it is impossible to miss that he was known for praying the supererogatory night prayer (tahhajud) every night, and was known to recite the entire Quran in a single unit of prayer out of his passion and love for worshipping God. Or if we mention scholars among the successors such as Urwah ibn Zubayr (God be pleased with him) who was known for his passion in worshipping. He was once inflicted by a disease in his leg and had it cut. Not only did he spend the time during this operation remembering God and uttering litanies, but the night of his operation was the only night in his life in which he left the night prayer. Is it fair to say that these men and women were like us? The people of knowledge only assume this position of leadership and greatness upon God placing them in those positions, not simply due to their intellect. It is primarily due to their fervor for worship and His blessings upon them. When we follow these schools we aren’t solely following men and women who had large amounts of information, rather we are following people who put that information into action thereby transforming it into knowledge.

Benefits of the Schools

The benefit of studying a school of law is that it makes the process of learning easier upon the student. It limits the amount of information in an age where information seems limitless. While many praise this age as being an age of great progress due to this information, it is also an age of extreme misunderstanding and ignorance. When information becomes easily accessible it can also become overwhelming. There is harm in that an individual may not realize that some aspects of scripture and the hadith tradition require prerequisite knowledge to properly ascertain the meanings of these sacred lessons. A school of law aims to give you that prerequisite information as well as the subsequent rulings, we discussed this with the quote from Ibn Wahb on Imam Malik (God be pleased with them both).
Another benefit is that when a person studies a school they begin studying the primary rulings in that school versus studying abstract rulings that may or may not directly pertain to them. One will always start with the basics such as how to properly cleanse oneself for prayer instead of whether a mortgage is permissible or not (though the latter is also important but not as significant as the former). As they grow as a student they may (within the same school) find variances of opinion alongside the reasons as to why those variances exist. Finally, after some time a student will master the school and by utilizing the tools learned will be able to understand contemporary issues through the lens of that school. A student might eventually choose to study other schools, or all of the schools once they have completed studying one. They do this in an effort to understand the differences that scholars have had in deriving rulings, and to increase their understanding of the mercy found in this religion and its sacred laws. This is a beautiful action and shows the high level of Islamic legal literacy of a Muslim.
When someone makes mention of a school of law they are not referring to a single person, rather they are referring to an entire history of legal rulings and scholars that ascribe to a foundational lexicon of interpreting Divine law. As an example, let us take a look at the school of Imam Shafi’i (God be pleased with him) whose school is split into various historical phases. You have his initial phase when he gave rulings during his time in Baghdad 195-199 AH, then later on from 199-204 AH you find he revisited all of his prior rulings after moving to Egypt in his books Kitab al Umm and Al-Risala al-Jadeeda. Scholars of the school make note of the difference in his judicial rulings between these two stages. In later stages you find scholars such as the prolific and famous Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, the Egyptian giant Al-Rafi’i, and the author of the 40 hadith Imam Nawawi (God be pleased with them all), all of whom continued to carry the school by refining its principles and revising its rulings. These revisions and refinements have carried on until recent times.
In some cases, the names of the schools originally referred to the location in which these schools existed. For example, Imam Malik took the actions of the major scholars of Madinah (who at the time were successors of the companions) as a source of law, as such his school was known as the school of the people of Madinah. However, as time progressed it became known as the school of Imam Malik. By studying the various schools one arrives at a complete understanding of the various ways of interpreting Islamic law. Also if one takes the time to understand the cultural and geographical context of some scholars then they will better understand why they ruled the way they did. This is increasingly important for controversial scholars such as Imam ibn Taymiyyah whose opinions most look at through a contemporary lens. Studying any traditional scholar through the lens of your current time, political climate, socio-economic rank may give way to misconceptions, misunderstandings and extreme practices. It is necessary that when delving into a school that it is done with a scholar who has mastered that school, and not simply an individual whose understanding is limited to the written word. Understanding the principles of those scholars is vital to comprehending their rulings.
The schools of law are also a way to paradise and conquering the ego. We are people who have wants and wishes, and if given two options we will often choose that which is easier and closer to our wants. As an example, there exists the ruling of combining the prayers. Usually this dispensation is given due to travel or unfavorable weather. However, the weather should meet certain conditions such as the rain being heavy as to cause difficulty or sickness (among other conditions which are described at length in books of law). Without schools of law a person may make the decision to combine the prayer for any perceived difficulty, and in the event that this difficulty dissipates, the person may still continue on with their action. This may seem like an insignificant example to most, but the purpose of law is to help us worship God in the best way possible. For the one who wants nothing other than to please God, they will not be satisfied with leaving their choices to chance but rather would want a logical progression of thought and established principles to assist them in making the best decision possible in what is the most important decision in their life, their worship of the Divine.


So is it obligatory to follow a school? The answer will differ based on who you ask. However, if you take the time to question yourself you may find the answer to be clear. What one needs to ask themselves is are they prepared to stand before God and tell Him that every act of worship they did they did knowing the reason why they did it and chose that decision over others? Are they prepared to say that they indeed asked those who knew and did not rely on their ego to guide them? If one is prepared to do so, then may God protect them and bless them. However, if one cannot say this with full conviction, and cannot put aside the time to study the basic sciences in Islam to understand the sacred texts, then know that you do not need to do so, for God has given us the great Imams of Islam and their students who over generations have delineated pathways for us to follow and learn the basics of our religion. May God be pleased with them and accept us for following their noble pathways to Him.