Why do we need to follow a specific madhhab when we have direct access to Qur’an and Hadith, which are the sources of this knowledge?
This question that echoes in the minds of many Muslims is of great importance as it directly relates to our lives in this world as well as in the Hereafter. It is possible for all Muslims to learn about the fundamental beliefs of Islam like Tawhid and about general ethics directly from the translations of Qur’an and Hadith.
However, understanding Islamic jurisprudence, fiqh, which forms the foundations of our everyday life, isn’t practically possible for most, except a very small number of scholars who have the requisite knowledge base and training. This is a slippery slope because while the text of Qur’an and authentic ahadith is free from error, its interpretations aren’t. So anybody who tries to deduce conclusion without proper training in ijtihad is liable to make errors.
Not all of the believers should go to fight. Of every section of them, why does not one part alone go forth, that the rest may gain understanding of the religion, to admonish their people when they return, that perhaps they may take warning.
Ask those who recall if you know not.
Any mention of fiqh can’t be made without talking about the four great imams of fiqh and their schools of thought. Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik ibn Anas, Imam Idris Shafi`i, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal are the luminous stars of the sky of Islamic jurisprudence. It is very important to note and realize that despite the differences of opinion in the matters of fiqh, these blessed souls had nothing but the utmost respect for each other.
Imam Abu Hanifa
First of the four great imams of fiqh, Nu`man ibn Thabit, Imam Abu Hanifa was born in 80 A.H. in Kufa. He is known as Imâm-e-A`zam, the Greatest Imam. His school has the second largest number of followers among the four imams with most adherents from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey. He was the only tâbi`i, those who met with the Companions of the Prophet peace be upon his soul, out of the four exalted luminaries. He had the privilege of seeing Anas ibn Malik, Sahl ibn Sad as-Sa’idi, ‘Abdullah ibn Abi Awfa and Abul-Fadl Amir ibn Wasila.
Hammad Basri, Ata bin Abi Rabah, Imam Baqir, Imam Ja`far as-Sadiq, Abdullah ibn Umar, Aqabah ibn Umar and many other distinguished scholars are among the teachers of Imam Hanifa. Qadi Abu Yusuf and Imam Muhammad are among his famous students.
Imam Abu Hanifa was the pioneer in compilation, classification and codification of fiqh. One of his biggest contributions to the field of Islamic Law is that he organized fiqh into functional categories and sub-categories starting with ritual purification, tahara. All other imams and scholars followed his organization. He is known for his unparalleled knowledge of fiqh and skill in analogical reasoning, qiyas, as well as piety, taqwa, and memory.
A quote attributed to Imam Shafi’i states that a person who wanted to specialize in fiqh should read Abu Hanifa’s books. `Abdullah ibn Mubarak said,
"I have not seen another specialist as learned as Abu Hanifa in the knowledge of fiqh."Sufyan ath-Thawri encapsulated all of the qualities of Imâm-e-A`zam in this statement,
"This man holds a high rank in knowledge, and if I did not stand up for his science, kalam, I would stand up for his age, and if not for his age then for his God-consciousness, wara`, and if not for his God-consciousness then for his jurisprudence, fiqh."Qadi Abu Yusuf, while describing Imam Abu Hanifa’s personality, said,
"As far as I know, Abu Hanifah was extremely pious, avoided forbidden things, remained silent and absorbed in his thoughts most of the time, and answered a question only if he knew the answer.
"He was very generous and self-respecting, never asked a favor of anybody, shunned the company of the worldly-minded and held worldly power and position in contempt. He avoided slander and only talked well of people. He was a man of profound learning and was as generous with his knowledge as with his money."Imam Shafi`i openly acknowledges the stature of Imam Abu Hanifa.
"People are all the children of Abu Hanifa in fiqh."
During the reign of Caliph al-Mansur of the Umayyad dynasty, Imam Abu Hanifa was offered the seat of Chief Judge, Qadi, but he refused and was imprisoned thereafter. In 150 A.H. he was reportedly poisoned by the orders of the Caliph and passed away.
Imam Malik ibn Anas
Imam Malik ibn Anas was the second of the four great imams of fiqh. He was born in 93 A.H. in Medina. He had great reverence and respect for his birthplace and, to show his respect, he never rode an animal within the city limits. He studied under the finest teachers like Nafi’Abul-Zanaad, Hisham ibn Urwah ibn Zubair, `Abdullah ibn Dinar, Muhammad ibn Muslim ibn Shihab az-Zuhri and a number of other notables.
"The Approved," al-Muwatta, is his seminal work that contains the most authentic and sound sayings and narrations of the Companions of Prophet Muhammad. Imam Shafi`i considers it the most correct and the most beneficial book on Earth after Qur’an. According to Imam Malik, he had seventy jurists of Medina examine the Muwatta and each one of them approved it. He was extremely careful in narrating ahadith and said,
"I do not accept knowledge from four types of people:His chain of narration, the chain relayed from himself relayed from Nafi’ relayed from ibn Umar, was called the Golden Chain of Narrators by Imam-e-Hadith al-Bukhari.
A person well-known to be foolish, even though all the other people narrate from him;
A person involved in committing heresy and calling others towards innovation in deen;
A person who lies in regular conversation with people, even though I do not accuse him as a liar in regards to hadith; and,
A person who is a pious worshiper or scholar, but does not correctly memorize what he narrates."
He was regarded in the highest esteem by the other three of the great imams.
Imam Shafi`i says,
"If Malik and ibn Uyainah were not here, the knowledge of Hijaz would have perished."Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal praised him saying,
"I compared Imam Malik to Awza’i, Thawri, Laith, Hammad, and al-Hakam in knowledge, and he is the leader in hadith and fiqh."Imam Abu Hanifa said while acknowledging his qualities,
"I have never seen anyone more understanding, proper and patient than Imam Malik."
After a brief illness he passed away on the 11th of Rabi’ul-Awwal in the year 179 A.H. and was buried in the Wahhabi-mandated demolished cemetery of Jannatul Baqi in Medina.
Imam Idris Shafi`i
Imam Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi`i was one of the greatest jurists. He was born in 150 A.H. in Gaza, Palestine, the same year as Imam Abu Hanifa died. He shared the lineage with Prophet Muhammad. With very humble beginnings, he came to Mecca at the age of ten where he began his formal education. He studied fiqh from teachers like Imam Shaybani who was one of the famous scholars of the Hanafi school of fiqh, Muslim ibn Khalil az-Zanji, Sufyan bin Uyainah and Imam Malik ibn Anas. He had an amazing memory which enabled him to memorize the entire Qur’an by the age of seven and by the time he turned fifteen, he had memorized all of the Muwatta.
Imam Shafi`i is attributed with two madhahib; al-Qadîm, the Old, from his stay in Iraq, and al-Jadîd, the New, from his stay in Egypt. al-Jadid forms most of the Shafi`i fiqh except in a limited number of cases where scholars have followed al-Qadîm.
The most famous works of the Imam include Kitab al-Umm, the source for al-Qadîm, and Kitab al-Hujja, the source of al-Jadîd. A significant contribution of imam Shafi`i is the distinction between innovation in religion that is good, bid`atul hasanat, and innovation in religion that leads to heresy which is referred to simply as bid`a. In his words,
"Therefore, whatever innovation conforms to the Sunnah is approved, mahmûd, and whatever opposes it is abominable, madhmûm."
He is known for his mastery of the Arabic language, eloquence, humility, and knowledge of hadith. As acknowledged by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal,
"Our napes were in the hands of the Companions of Abu Hanifah when it came to hadith until we saw Imam Shafi`i: he was the most knowledgeable in the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of Rasulullah that he would even suffice one who was not well informed in Hadith."On another occasion Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal said,
"When I am questioned about some matter that I do not know of I say to myself that Imam Shafi`i knows about this and he will have some say in it because he is an ‘Alim of Quraish, and the Prophet said that an Alim of Quraish fills the Earth with knowledge."
He met with his Creator on the last day of Rajab in Egypt in the year 204 A.H.
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, also referred to as Sheikh al-Islam and the Imam of Ahlus-Sunnah, was born in Baghdad in 164 A.H. He started learning fiqh from the famous Hanafi scholar Qadi Abu Yusuf but later discontinued the study of fiqh in favor of hadith. He was an authority in many disciplines including narration, hadith; jurisprudence, fiqh; exegesis, tafsir; abrogation, naksh; theology, aqeedah; recitation, qiraat; and the Arabic language.
In addition to the Musnad, his exceptional collection of hadith, Kitab az-Zuhd is also considered to be an influential work in Islamic heritage as well as his Kitabul-A’mal, Kitabut-Tafsir, Kitabul-Nasikh w'al-Mansookh, Kitabul-Masaa’il and Kitabul-Fadaa’il.
Imam Hanbal strongly believed in the orthodox doctrine of Islam and propagated it. He wrote two important books on the orthodox religious doctrine, the Kitab as-Sunnah and ar-Rad ‘Ala az-Zanaadiqah w'al-Jahmiyyah.
He was a great jurist but was reluctant to give fatwa. al-Mukhtasar by al-Khiraqi is the first written manual of fiqh and an introductory work on Hanbali fiqh. Some of the notable Hanbali scholars include Waliullah Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani, Allama ibn al-Jawzi, Sheikh ibn Taymiyah, Imam ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya, Sheikh Sulayman ibn Abdul-Wahhab.
One of the most significant events of his life was the trial of ‘Khalq-e-Qur’an’ resultant of the creedal dispute over the argument of whether the Quran is the Eternal Word of God or created. It was during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph, al-Ma’mun. The Mu`tazilah of then had instigated the belief that Allah created His Speech as a distinct entity and called it the Qur’an. This was against the orthodox Muslim belief. The Caliph forced all of the scholars of the time to accept this belief and most of them did but Imam Ahmad completely disregarded the pressure and refused to accept this heresy. As a result, he was imprisoned and severely tortured for over two years.
He was highly regarded by the likes of Imam Shafi`i, who said,
"I left Baghdad, and I did not leave behind me a man better, having more knowledge, or greater understanding, nor having greater piety than Ahmad Ibn Hanbal."According to Abu Dawud,
"The lectures of Ahmad were sittings of the Hereafter. He would not mention in them anything of the worldly affairs; and I never saw him mention this world."The famous Hanafi scholar Yahya ibn Ma’in praised him in these words,
"I have not seen the like of Ahmad; we have accompanied him for fifty years, and he never boasted about anything from the good which he was characterized with."
After a brief illness he took his last breath on Friday the 12th of Rabi’ul-Awwal, 241 A.H. His funeral procession was perhaps the largest in the history of Arabia; over one million people attended it.
— Hasan Saleem, Pakistan Insider