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Differences of Opinion in Sunni Schools of Thought

Summary: This article explains the differences in practice between each Sunni school of thought. It explores the history behind these differences and what events led to these individual schools. Dr. Shabir Ally begins by describing the emergence of the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’ and Hanbali schools of thought. He explains that location, access to the Prophet and availability of hadiths led to differences in methodology. Interestingly, scholars have always recognized that though one school of thought might deem something to be haram or impermissible while another views it to be halal or permissible, this diversity is the product of a system of sound methodology, so each position is acceptable. Dr. Shabir explains that ultimately some points in the religion are obscure and we don’t have enough information to know what the truth is.

Find full video of this interview here.

Dr. Safiyyah Ally: Here’s a question from a viewer: “What are the specific differences in practices of each Sunni school of thought, and what is the history behind them? What events led to these individual schools?”

Dr. Shabir Ally: There are four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence within the Sunni realm. The first one in terms of historical emergence is that of Imam Abu Hanifah. He was born about 80 years after hijrah, which means several decades after the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He lived in Iraq and developed his school with many students there. And when I speak of a school, I’m referring to a body of scholarship that emerges with teacher and student, and with many students having their own students throughout history. A school of thought is a way of thinking and distilling the information into final rulings on issues that emerge.

And following that there was the school of Imam Malik, who was based in Medina in the place where the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) spent the last years of his life. Imam Malik was born in the year 93 of the hijrah, so he was 13 years younger than Imam Abu Hanifah.

Now, if we stick with these two scholars for the moment, we can understand how differences emerged. Iraq was far from where most of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon them) lived, so there wasn’t as much information about the details of the prophet's practice, so there was more room for interpretation. When you have something reported from the Prophet, you feel obliged to follow that and reticent to offer your own opinion on the matter. But in Iraq, they had fewer reports, so they exercised their opinions and emphasized the Quranic texts. This means that if something was clearly derived from the text of the Quran, even if somebody came and said, well, we have a report from the prophet saying something different, they would have preferred to stick with what is clear from the Quran rather than what somebody was reporting, because they had a suspicion that when people report things, the reports could change from one person to another, especially in the early days when these reports were given by word of mouth rather than put into a writing or carved in stone. Imam Malik on the other hand was in Medina, where many of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon them) lived, where the Prophet himself lived the last years of his life and where the practices of Islam were demonstrated for all and sundry. So Imam Malik preferred the practices in Medina. Differences naturally arose because of the two different methods that were followed, one in Iraq and other in Medina.

Safiyyah: Did they interact at a very early time?

Shabir: Yes, there was interaction between Muslims, especially since those who were in Iraq would come to Mecca to perform the Hajj and to Medina to visit the mosque of the prophet (peace be upon him). They were aware of the differences, but they had different lenses through which they were looking at the same information. From the lens of Imam Malik, whatever was done in Medina was prioritized. But from the lens of the Iraqis, they were less committed to the situation in Medina and freer to think more globally in terms of the objectives and spirit. They took a slightly more rational approach rather than saying, this is the tradition and we should just follow it.

Following from the tradition of Imam Malik, we have a later scholar, Imam Al-Shafi’, who wanted to emphasize not just the generally known practice of Medina, but that a specific practice was done by the Prophet (peace be upon him). It wasn’t sufficient that a large number of people from that generation close to the time of the Prophet were following a particular thing or doing something. He wanted to know whether there was a specific report that could be attested to that could be traced all the way back to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Imam Al-Shafi’ had the luxury of looking at the information this way because at his time, people had started to develop hadiths into a science. So, a person born in that milieu, such as Imam al-Shafi’ would have confidence in that science, meaning that if a hadith was graded authentic, Imam al-Shafi’ would have had full confidence that it really was so. So he emerged with a system of thought that was more dependent on specific reports than the general practice.

Coming later than Imam ‘al-Shafi was Ahmad ibn Hanbal. He becomes the eponym of what we might describe now as the fourth school. In his time, hadiths had blossomed even more. He compiled a book of 30,000 hadiths, whereas by comparison, Imam Malik compiled a book that has only about 500 hadiths from the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself and then reports from others as well. If we wanted to know what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said on subjects from A to Z in Imam Malik’s Muwatta, you might not be able to find many hadiths dealing with the various subjects. But in Imam Ahmed's collection, you find hadiths galore. What difference does it make? When armed with Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s collection of 30,000 hadiths, there's less room for opinions because you have specific instructions on almost everything from A to Z. So faith and practice emerged to become literalistic. Some people took it even further than this. Dawud Ibn Hazm emerged with what is referred to as the Zahiri School, and that took things ultra literally. A lot of that literalism is there in the Hanbali methodology as well; it has become in modern times somewhat fused with Hanbali methodology. For example, in Saudi Arabia, where the Hanbali school has become the default school that is known and practiced and whose laws are implemented in the country, we find a more literalistic application of certain laws. In other parts of the world where you have the Hanafi school in practice, you find a more rational approach where people might be looking at the objectives behind the law and the spirit rather than the literal application.

Safiyyah: What does the diversity of the four schools mean of the practice of Islam?

Shabir: It means that Muslims have to accept diversity. And Muslims have learned to live with this diversity. Maybe the common people are surprised if they've only been accustomed to one thing and then they go into another area and they find that people are practicing things slightly differently. But the scholars know of this diversity. They have implemented one system in one area of the world because it’s easier to teach the common folks one system than to tell them theoretically it could be any one of these four systems.

Safiyyah: Does the diversity affect little things like the details of prayer or does it affect wider theological issues as well?

Shabir: The theological issues, not so much. It's the practices, and even with the practices, it's not the core of the practice. Among these four schools, for example, all of them agree that we are to have five prayers. All of them agree on the obligatory components of the prayers. Two cycles in the morning, four for the afternoon prayer, four for the late afternoon, three for the prayer right after sunset and four late at night. But then there are other prayers, like the witr prayer, and there are disagreements about how many cycles it is. And then there are prayers that we call sunnah, and there are differences there too.

Safiyyah: Does it matter which of these schools of thought a person follows?

Shabir: There is agreement among the scholars of these four schools that you can follow any one of these four and you are rightly guided. You might have two Muslim side by side, and one is eating something because his school of thought says it is permitted and the other is avoiding that food item because his school says it is impermissible or haram. But while avoiding it for himself, he has to accept that his brother or sister in faith is following a system of thought that has guided the followers of that school to a certain conclusion. One of these conclusions is wrong. A food cannot be both halal and haram at the same time. And certainly God didn’t rule for certain foods to be halal for the Shafi's but haram for the Hanafis. No, God ruled one way, but we don’t know what that way is. We have to accept that they're following a good methodology, they're faithfully trying to find the right way, but they are looking at it through different lenses. So we leave them to their conclusion and we know that God is not going to penalize them. There are some things which are so obscure in the tradition that the best of our scholars are going to arrive at two different opinions about it.

Safiyyah: Is it possible for a Muslim to pick and choose between the schools of thought in terms of the way they practice Islam?

Shabir: Generally, for the common folks, the choice is not available because what happens in practice is that a school becomes widespread in a certain area. Before the schools became widespread, there were known scholars in different places. One might go to Iraq and find Imam Abu Hanifah teaching there. One might go to Medina and find Imam Malik teaching there. And you asked me about interactions. One of the primary students of Imam Abu Hanifah, Mohammad bin Hassan Shaybani, went to Medina and studied Imam Malik's book the Muwatta and compiled his own edition of the Muwatta. So they knew the same information. They were students of each other. There was interaction, but it would have been difficult for people in Medina to follow Imam Abu Hanifah because he was far away and they didn't have a telephone to call each other daily and find out how to deal with new issues arising. So people tended to follow the scholarship in their area. Now this scholarship has become well entrenched in a certain area, so people who are born in that area naturally tend to follow that. That's why you will find people from the Indopak sub-continent naturally mostly following the Hanafi School. People in Saudi Arabia mostly follow the Hanbali School because that's what is prevalent there.

Safiyyah: But in Canada people choose their school of thought, right?

Shabir: I’ll come back to Canada in a bit, but I wanted to make the distinction that the scholars have the responsibility to know what is right and follow what is right. A scholar may be convinced of a particular school and follow that, but they may continue to abide by the school that is popularly followed in their area. A good example was Shah Waliullah of Delhi. Because he lived in Delhi, he abided by the Hanafi School because that was widespread there. But by conviction, he thought that the Shafi’ School is more to the point. But he didn't want to confuse the common folks, because they wouldn’t be able to absorb two schools at once. For common folks, it's enough to learn one with all of its details and do it right. Now, in our cosmopolitan situation, in the Toronto area, there are people from all around the world following wide variety of schools.

Safiyyah: You go in mosque and the person beside you might be praying differently.

Shabir: We have to come to that position of tolerance to recognize that these diverse practices are known in Muslim scholarship, widely acclaimed, and acknowledged and verified to be the product of sound methodology. So, they're all acceptable. But acceptable for the person who has been taught that way. We're not going to do something without being taught. We don't invent by ourselves. And we don't say, "Ah, that looks like something nice, let me just try that for a change." You should be following sound scholarship. Because ultimately, you want to follow what God and His Messenger said. There are experts in the field of interpreting the Quran and getting a sense of the life example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and distilling that information into the finer points of Islamic law and practice. We must consult them and learn from them.

The first level is the tolerance to accept that there is this variety, but the second level is to go deeper and to think about these differences and how they arose. We can’t insist on these points, because not only do we have to be tolerant for those who are doing something different, but the details are not firm, so we also have to be flexible with our own tradition and with the application of Islamic law.

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