A madhab is a school of interpretation of the laws and rules of the faith that is consistent within its standard rules of interpretation based the understanding of the teachings of God contained in the Qur’an as shown in the explanations and examples of the Prophet Muhammad (s), His Companions (RA) and the living chain of scholars (isnad) who have applied their intellect and devoted their time, energies and devotions to attempt to determine the will of God according to the Qur’an and the Prophetic sunnah (way) in order to make the path to life (this life and the next) easy for the Believers.
Debate Between Professor Dr. Allamah Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan Al-Buti Dean of Department of Religion, University of Damascus, Syria and a Leading Salafi Teacher
[Nuh Ha Mim Keller:] I will close this answer by translating a conversation that took place in Damascus between Shari‘a professor Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti, and a Salafi teacher.
Method of Understanding the rulings of Allah?
Buti: “What is your method for understanding the rulings of Allah? Do you take them from the Qur’an and sunna, or from the Imams of ijtihad?”
Salafi: “I examine the positions of the Imams and their evidences for them, and then take the closest of them to the evidence of the Qur’an and Sunna.”
Buti: “You have five thousand Syrian pounds that you have saved for six months. You then buy merchandise and begin trading with it. When do you pay zakat on the merchandise, after six months, or after one year?”
Salafi: [He thought, and said,] “Your question implies you believe zakat should be paid on business capital.”
Buti: “I am just asking. You should answer in your own way. Here in front of you is a library containing books of Qur’anic exegesis, hadith, and the works of the mujtahid Imams.”
Salafi: [He reflected for a moment, then said,] “Brother, this is din, and not simple matter. One could answer from the top of one’s head, but it would require thought, research, and study; all of which take time. And we have come to discuss something else.”
Buti: I dropped the question and said, “All right. Is it obligatory for every Muslim to examine the evidences for the positions of the Imams, and adopt the closest of them to the Qur’an and Sunna?”
Buti: “This means that all people possess the same capacity for ijtihad that the Imams of the madhhabs have; or even greater, since without a doubt, anyone who can judge the positions of the Imams and evaluate them according to the measure of the Qur’an and sunna must know more than all of them.”
Salafi: He said, “In reality, people are of three categories: the muqallid or ‘follower of qualified scholarship without knowing the primary textual evidence (of Qur’an and hadith)’; the muttabi‘, or ‘follower of primary textual evidence’; and the mujtahid, or scholar who can deduce rulings directly from the primary textual evidence (ijtihad). He who compares between madhhabs and chooses the closest of them to the Qur’an is a muttabi‘, a follower of primary textual evidence, which is an intermediate degree between following scholarship (taqlid) and deducing rulings from primary texts (ijtihad).”
Buti: “Then what is the follower of scholarship (muqallid) obliged to do?”
Salafi: “To follow the mujtahid he agrees with.”
Buti: “Is there any difficulty in his following one of them, adhering to him, and not changing?”
Salafi: “Yes there is. It is unlawful (haram).”
Buti: “What is the proof that it is unlawful?”
Salafi: “The proof is that he is obliging himself to do something Allah Mighty and Majestic has not obligated him to.”
Buti: I said, “Which of the seven canonical readings (qira’at) do you recite the Qur’an in?”
Salafi: “That of Hafs.”
Buti: “Do you recite only in it, or in a different canonical reading each day.”
Salafi: “No, I recite only in it.”
Buti: “Why do you read only it when Allah Mighty and Majestic has not obliged you to do anything except to recite the Qur’an as it has been conveyed—with the total certainty of tawatur (being conveyed by witnesses so numerous at every stage of transmission that their sheer numbers obviate the possibility of forgery or alteration), from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)?”
Salafi: “Because I have not had a opportunity to study other canonical readings, or recite the Qur’an except in this way.”
Buti: “But the individual who learns the fiqh of the Shafi‘i school—he too has not been able to study other madhhabs or had the opportunity to understand the rules of his religion except from this Imam. So if you say that he must know all the ijtihads of the Imams so as to go by all of them, it follows that you too must learn all the canonical readings so as to recite in all of them. And if you excuse yourself because you cannot, you should excuse him also. In any case, what I say is: where did you get that it is obligatory for a follower of scholarship (muqallid) to keep changing from one madhhab to another, when Allah has not obliged him to? That is, just as he is not obliged to adhere to a particular madhhab, neither is he obliged to keep changing.”
Salafi: “What is unlawful for him is adhering to one while believing that Allah has commanded him to do so.”
Buti: “That is something else, and is true without a doubt and without any disagreement among scholars. But is there any problem with his following a particular mujtahid, knowing that Allah has not obliged him to do that?”
Salafi: “There is no problem.”
Buti: [Al-Khajnadi’s] al-Karras, which you teach from, contradicts you. It says this is unlawful, in some places actually asserting that someone who adheres to a particular Imam and no other is an unbeliever (kafir).”
Salafi: He said, “Where?” and then began looking at the Karras, considering its texts and expressions, reflecting on the words of the author “Whoever follows one of them in particular in all questions is a blind, imitating, mistaken bigot, and is “among those who have divided their religion and are parties” [Qur’an 30:32]. He said, “By follows, he means someone who believes it legally obligatory for him to do so. The wording is a little incomplete.”
Buti: I said, “What evidence is there that that’s what he meant? Why don’t you just say the author was mistaken?”
Salafi: He insisted that the expression was correct, that it should be understood as containing an unexpressed condition [i.e. “provided one believes it is legally obligatory”], and he exonerated the writer from any mistake in it.
Buti: I said, “But interpreted in this fashion, the expression does not address any opponent or have any significance. Not a single Muslim is unaware that following such and such a particular Imam is not legally obligatory. No Muslim does so except from his own free will and choice.”
Salafi: “How should this be, when I hear from many common people and some scholars that it is legally obligatory to follow one particular school, and that a person may not change to another?”
Buti: “Name one person from the ordinary people or scholars who said that to you.”
He said nothing, and seemed surprised that what I said could be true, and kept repeating that he had thought that many people considered it unlawful to change from one madhhab to another.
I said, “You won’t find anyone today who believes this misconception, though it is related from the latter times of the Ottoman period that they considered a Hanafi changing from his own school to another to be an enormity. And without a doubt, if true, this was something that was complete nonsense from them; a blind, hateful bigotry.”
I then said, “Where did you get this distinction between the muqallid “follower of scholarship” and the muttabi‘ “follower of evidence”: Is there a original, lexical distinction [in the Arabic language], or is it merely terminological?”
Salafi: “There is a lexical difference.”
Buti: I brought him lexicons with which to establish the lexical difference between the two words, and he could not find anything. I then said: “Abu Bakr (Allah be well pleased with him) said to a desert Arab who had objected to the alotment for him agreed upon by the Muslims, ‘If the Emigrants accept, you are but followers’—using the word “followers” (tabi‘) to mean ‘without any prerogative to consider, question, or discuss.’” (Similar to this is the word of Allah Most High, “When those who were followed (uttubi‘u) disown those those who followed (attaba‘u) upon seeing the torment, and their relations are sundered” (Qur’an 2:166), which uses follow (ittiba‘) for the most basic blind imitation).
Salafi: He said, “Then let it be a technical difference: don’t I have a right to establish a terminological usage?”
Buti: “Of course. But this term of yours does not alter the facts. This person you term a muttabi‘ (follower of scholarly evidence) will either be an expert in evidences and the means of textual deduction from them, in which case he is a mujtahid. Or, if not an expert or unable to deduce rulings from them, then he is muqallid (follower of scholarly conclusions). And if he is one of these on some questions, and the other on others, then he is a muqallid for some and a mujtahid for others. In any case, it is an either-or distinction, and the ruling for each is clear and plain.”
Salafi: He said, “The muttabi‘ is someone able to distinguish between scholarly positions and the evidences for them, and to judge one to be stronger than others. This is a level different to merely accepting scholarly conclusions.
Buti: “If you mean,” I said, “by distinguishing between positions differentiating them according to the strength or weakness of the evidence, this is the highest level of ijtihad. Are you personally able to do this?”
Salafi: “I do so as much as I can.”