Recent causes of religious disunity and the dangers of anti-Madhhabism
- Part 6: Recent causes of religious disunity and the dangers of anti-Madhhabism Nonetheless, social turbulences have in the past century thrown up a number of writers who have advocated the abandonment of authoritative scholarship. The most prominent figures in this campaign were Muhammad Abduh and his pupil Muhammad Rashid Rida. Dazzled by the triumph of the West, and informed in subtle ways by their own well-documented commitment to Freemasonry, these men urged Muslims to throw off the shackles of Taqlid, and to reject the authority of the Four Schools. Today in some Arab capitals, especially where the indigenous tradition of orthodox scholarship has been weakened, it is common to see young Arabs filling their homes with every Hadith collection they can lay their hands upon, and poring over them in the apparent belief that they are less likely to misinterpret this vast and complex literature than Imam al-Shafi'i , Imam Ahmad , and the other great Imams (R.A). This irresponsible approach, although still not widespread, is predictably opening the door to sharply divergent opinions, which have seriously damaged the unity, credibility and effectiveness of the Islamic movement, and provoked sharp arguments over issues settled by the great Imams over a thousand years ago. It is common now to see young activists prowling the mosques, criticising other worshippers for what they believe to be defects in their worship, even when their victims are following the verdicts of some of the great Imams of Islam. The unpleasant, Pharisaic atmosphere generated by this activity has the effect of discouraging many less committed Muslims from attending the mosque at all. No-one now recalls the view of the early Ulama, which was that Muslims should tolerate divergent interpretations of the Sunnah as long as these interpretations have been held by reputable scholars. As Sufyan al-Thawri said: “If you see a man doing something over which there is a debate among the scholars, and which you yourself believe to be forbidden, you should not forbid him from doing it. The alternative to this policy is, of course, a disunity and rancour which will poison and cripple the Muslim community from within.” In a Western-influenced global culture in which people are urged from early childhood to think for themselves and to challenge established authority, it can sometimes be difficult to muster enough humility to recognise ones own limitations. We are all a little like Pharaoh: our egos are by nature resistant to the idea that anyone else might be much more intelligent or learned than ourselves. The belief that ordinary Muslims, even if they know Arabic, are qualified to derive rulings of the Shariah for themselves, is an example of this egotism running wild. To young people proud of their own judgement, and unfamiliar with the complexity of the sources and the brilliance of authentic scholarship, this can be an effective trap, which ends by luring them away from the orthodox path of Islam and into an unintentional agenda of provoking deep divisions among the Muslims. The fact that all the great scholars of the religion, including the Hadith experts, themselves belonged to Madhhabs, and required their students to belong to Madhhabs, seems to have been forgotten. Self-esteem has won a major victory here over common sense and Islamic responsibility.
The Holy Quran commands Muslims to use their minds and reflective capacities; and the issue of following qualified scholarship is an area in which this faculty must be very carefully deployed. The basic point should be appreciated that no categoric difference exists between Usul al-Fiqh and any other specialised science requiring lengthy training. Shaykh Said Ramadan al-Buti, who has articulated the orthodox response to the anti-Madhhab trend in his book: Non-Madhhabism: “The Greatest Bida Threatening the Islamic Sharia”, likes to compare the science of deriving rulings to that of medicine. "If one’s child is seriously ill", he asks, "does one look for oneself in the medical textbooks for the proper diagnosis and cure, or should one go to a trained medical practitioner?" Clearly, sanity dictates the latter option. And so it is in matters of religion, which are in reality even more important and potentially hazardous: we would be both foolish and irresponsible to try to look through the sources ourselves, and become our own muftis. Instead, we should recognise that those who have spent their entire lives studying the Sunnah and the principles of law are far less likely to be mistaken than we are. Another metaphor might be added to this, this time borrowed from astronomy. We might compare the Quranic verses and the Hadiths to the stars. With the naked eye, we are unable to see many of them clearly; so we need a telescope. If we are foolish, or proud, we may try to build one ourselves. If we are sensible and modest, however, we will be happy to use one built for us by Imam al-Shafi'i or Ibn Hanbal , and refined, polished and improved by generations of great astronomers. A Madhhab is, after all, nothing more than a piece of precision equipment enabling us to see Islam with the maximum clarity possible. If we use our own devices, our amateurish attempts will inevitably distort our vision. A third image might also be deployed. An ancient building, for instance the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, might seem imperfect to some who worship in it. Young enthusiasts, burning with a desire to make the building still more exquisite and well-made (and no doubt more in conformity with their own time-bound preferences), might gain access to the crypts and basements which lie under the structure, and, on the basis of their own understanding of the principles of architecture, try to adjust the foundations and pillars which support the great edifice above them. They will not, of course, bother to consult professional architects, except perhaps one or two whose rhetoric pleases them nor will they be guided by the books and memoirs of those who have maintained the structure over the centuries. Their zeal and pride leaves them with no time for that. Groping through the basements, they bring out their picks and drills, and set to work with their usual enthusiasm. There is a real danger that Sunni Islam is being treated in a similar fashion. The edifice has stood for centuries, withstanding the most bitter blows of its enemies. Only from within can it be weakened. No doubt, Islam has its intelligent foes among whom this fact is well-known. The spectacle of the disunity and Fitnas which divided the early Muslims despite their superior piety, and the solidity and cohesiveness of Sunnism after the final codification of the Shariah in the four Schools of the great Imams, must have put ideas into many a malevolent head. This is not to suggest in any way that those who attack the great Madhhabs are the conscious tools of Islams enemies. But it may go some way to explaining why they will continue to be well-publicised and well-funded, while the orthodox alternative is starved of resources. With every Muslim now a proud Mujtahid , and with Taqlid dismissed as a sin rather than a humble and necessary virtue, the divergent views which caused such pain in our early
history will surely break surface again. Instead of four Madhhabs in harmony, we will have a billion Madhhabs in bitter and self-righteous conflict. No more brilliant scheme for the destruction of Islam could ever have been devised.