What is the ruling regarding following one legal school of thought (madhab)? Is it obligatory?
In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate
No, it is not obligatory to follow one legal school of thought. [Ibn ‘Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar]
However, it is highly encouraged for the following reasons:
1 – Learning the injunctions from one school is easy and within everyone’s capacity.
2 – Learning from one school results in less confusion for the common Muslim, whereas keeping track of the injunctions of multiple schools can be difficult.
3 – It facilitates consistency in practice.
4 – It allows the heart to focus on the more essential realities of worship instead of the subtleties of jurisprudential debate, etc.
Acting Based on Knowledge
What is obligatory for every Muslim is to act based on knowledge. Ibn Ruslan of the Shafi’i school beautifully mentions in his poem ‘Matn al-Zubad’,
كل من بغير علم يعمل – أعماله مردودة لا تقبل
Anyone who, without knowledge, acts – their actions are rejected, not accepted
[Ibn Ruslan, Matn al-Zubad]
A similar sentiment is echoed when Imam Bukhari titled a chapter of his great work in Hadith known as Sahih al-Bukhari. He titles the chapter:
The Chapter of Knowledge Before Speech or Actions due to Allah’s statement “Know that there is no god save Allah” – Thus Beginning with Knowledge.
Ibn al-Munir (Allah have mercy on him) comments on this, saying, “What is meant is that knowledge is a prerequisite for the soundness of a statement or deed; thus they do not count except with it (knowledge). Knowledge, therefore, precedes both because it produces a sound intention which then produces sound actions.” [‘Ayni; ‘Umda al-Qari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari]
Keeping the above in mind, if one does not have the necessary knowledge, referring to the people of knowledge is obligatory; because without knowledge, deeds are in vain.
Allah Most High says, “Ask the people of remembrance, if you do not know…” [Qur’an, 21:7]
The people of remembrance here refer to the scholars. Thus referring to those who know about the religion is a general obligation, without which one cannot live in the obedience of Allah Most High. [Qurtubi, al-Jam’i Li Ahkam al-Qur’an]
The Common Muslim is Not Bound by a Single Legal School
The opinion of the Hanafi, Shafi’i, and Maliki scholars, along with many of the Hanbali scholars, is that the commoner (i.e. the non-scholar) is not bound to a single legal school (al-‘Aami la madhaba lahu). Even if the common Muslim adheres to a single school, their worships and practices are considered valid or invalid in the light of all four recognized schools. [Ibn ‘Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar]
In applying this principle, if a Muslim has been praying incorrectly according to their claimed school – but their worship fits the criteria of validity in other schools – it is in the discretion of the jurist – if they deem it appropriate to the circumstance – to declare the worship valid.
Following a Mujtahid Imam
What is necessary for every Muslim is that their worships and practices are based on the teachings of a valid Mujtahid Imam, whoever they may be. [Ibid.]
In the early centuries of Islam, there were not only four Imams; there were many.
Thus, had one lived at that time, they could have followed any Imam of their choosing.
However, due to much of the principles and rulings of the early Imams being lost and not adequately codified, only four recognized mujtahid Imams – Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i, and Ahmad bin Hanbal (Allah be pleased with them all) – remain.
That said, it is the Muslim’s prerogative to follow any of the four Imams at this time.
Combining Between Schools
It must be pointed out that one is not required to follow one of the four in every issue of Islamic law; instead, hypothetically speaking, one could follow the Hanafi school in their business transactions and the Shaf’i school in the worships, for example.
That said, it is prohibited to pick and choose, if one does so (a) merely seeking out convenient opinions based on their desires (i.e. not out of necessity) or (b) such that one’s combining schools leads to contradiction regarding the validity of the action; this is known as talfiq. [Ibid.]
Talfiq – The Contradictory Combining of Opinions
The injunctions of each school are not merely a list of arbitrary opinions of no correlation to one another; rather, each legal school is based on foundational principles from which all the injunctions of the school are derived congruously and harmoniously.
So, suppose someone takes one opinion from one school and another opinion from a different school regarding the same issue (e.g. prayer, charity, fasting, etc.). In that case, they may fall into contradiction (talfiq).
An example of this is if a Muslim (let’s call him Zayd) intends to pray and performs the wudu for the prayer. After that, he touches the skin of his spouse and says to himself, “According to Imam Abu Hanifa, touching one’s spouse doesn’t break the wudu.” After that, his nose bleeds, so he says, “According to Imam Shafi’i, bleeding doesn’t break the wudu.” Then, Zayd performs the prayer.
Zayd’s wudu and prayer, due to the contradictory combining of opinions, is not valid according to Imam Abu Hanifa, nor is it valid according to Imam Shafi’i. This type of combining is prohibited and sinful (fisq). [Ibid]
Why Are There Differing Opinions
It is a well-known statement amongst the scholars of Islam that the valid differences of opinion between the scholars are a source of mercy for the Muslim community.
Due to the vast multicultural nature of the Muslim world, Muslims worldwide differ in their specific circumstances. That does not only apply on the communal/global level, but even individuals within a homogeneous society may have unique extenuating circumstances.
That said, had they been compelled to adhere to only their specific legal school, this may prove unduly difficult for them. In contrast, it is established textually that undue difficulty must be averted. Consider the statement of Allah Most High, “… and He (Allah) has not placed upon you any undue difficulty in the religion.” [Qur’an; 22:78]
On the other hand, if they were to be granted a dispensation from another school, this removes the resultant hardship, fulfilling the higher purposes of the religion: facilitating the worship of the Creator for the Muslim.
Note that no Muslim should self prescribe themselves a dispensation from another school. Instead, they should consult with a scholar. Doing this diminishes the possibility of seeking out rulings for mere convenience; also, it prevents the commoner from making incorrect judgments.
Statements of the Scholars Regarding Adhering to One Legal School
Imam Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) states, “… then he mentions that if one adheres solely to one school, like that of Abu Hanifa or Shaf’i – one opinion is that that person must continue to adhere to that school; others disagreed – and that is the soundest opinion. It has become a common expression that the commoner is not bound by one particular school.”
Imam al-Nawawi (Allah have mercy on him) cites Abu al-Fath al-Harawi, a contemporary of Imam al-Shaf’i, saying, “The opinion of the majority of our companions (i.e. fellow scholars of the Shaf’i school) is that the commoner is not bound by a particular legal school. If they find a mujtahid Imam, they follow them…” [Nawawi, Rawda al-Talibin wa ‘Umda al-Muftin]
Some scholars, both past and contemporary, declare following one specific legal school an obligation. This, however, is not the majority opinion.
If you would like to read further about this issue, the following works are a great place to start:
(1) The Differences of the Imams by Shaykh Zakariyya Kandhlawi
(2) The Influence of the Noble Hadith Upon the Differences of Opinion Amongst the Jurist Imams by Shaykh Muhammad Awwamah.
Furthermore, see the following link:
I hope this answers your question sufficiently
Allah knows best
[Shaykh] Yusuf Weltch
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
وَالْأَصَحُّ أَنَّهُ يَتَخَيَّرُ فِي تَقْلِيدِ أَيٍّ شَاءَ وَلَوْ مَفْضُولًا وَإِنْ اعْتَقَدَهُ كَذَلِكَ، وَحِينَئِذٍ فَلَا يُمْكِنُ أَنْ يَقْطَعَ أَوْ يَظُنَّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الصَّوَابِ، بَلْ عَلَى الْمُقَلِّدِ أَنْ يَعْتَقِدَ أَنَّ مَا ذَهَبَ إلَيْهِ إمَامُهُ يَحْتَمِلُ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ. قَالَ ابْنُ حَجَرٍ: ثُمَّ رَأَيْت الْمُحَقِّقَ ابْنَ الْهُمَامِ صَرَّحَ بِمَا يُؤَيِّدُهُ حَيْثُ قَالَ فِي شَرْحِ الْهِدَايَةِ: إنْ أَخَذَ الْعَامِّيُّ بِمَا يَقَعُ فِي قَلْبِهِ أَنَّهُ أَصْوَبُ أَوْلَى، وَعَلَى هَذَا اسْتَفْتَى مُجْتَهِدَيْنِ فَاخْتَلَفَا عَلَيْهِ الْأَوْلَى أَنْ يَأْخُذَ بِمَا يَمِيلُ إلَيْهِ قَلْبُهُ مِنْهُمَا. وَعِنْدِي أَنَّهُ لَوْ أَخَذَ بِقَوْلِ الَّذِي لَا يَمِيلُ إلَيْهِ جَازَ؛ لِأَنَّ مَيْلَهُ وَعَدَمَهُ سَوَاءٌ، وَالْوَاجِبُ عَلَيْهِ تَقْلِيدُ مُجْتَهِدٍ وَقَدْ فَعَلَ. اهـ.
ص48 – كتاب الدر المختار وحاشية ابن عابدين رد المحتار – مقدمة
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(قَوْلُهُ: كَمَا فِي الْقُنْيَةِ وَغَيْرِهَا) وَعَزَاهُ صَاحِبُ الْمُصَفَّى إلَى الْإِمَامِ حَمِيدِ الدِّينِ عَنْ شَيْخِهِ الْإِمَامِ الْمَحْبُوبِيِّ وَإِلَى شَمْسِ الْأَئِمَّةِ الْحَلْوَانِيِّ، وَعَزَاهُ فِي الْقُنْيَةِ إلَى الْحَلْوَانِيِّ وَالنَّسَفِيِّ فَسَقَطَ مَا قِيلَ إنَّ صَاحِبَ الْقُنْيَةِ بَنَاهُ عَلَى مَذْهَبِ الْمُعْتَزِلَةِ مِنْ أَنَّ الْعَامِّيَّ لَهُ الْخِيَارُ مِنْ كُلِّ مَذْهَبٍ مَا يَهْوَاهُ. وَالصَّحِيحُ عِنْدَنَا أَنَّ الْحَقَّ وَاحِدٌ، وَأَنَّ تَتَبُّعَ الرُّخَصِ فِسْقٌ. اهـ.
ص371 – كتاب الدر المختار وحاشية ابن عابدين رد المحتار – كتاب الصلاة
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وَقَدْ نَجِدُ مَا يُخَالِفُ هَذَا فَإِنَّ أَبَا الْفَتْحِ الْهَرَوِيَّ وَهُوَ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ الْإِمَامِ يَقُولُ فِي الْأُصُولِ: مَذْهَبُ عَامَّةِ أَصْحَابِنَا أَنَّ الْعَامِّيَّ لَا مَذْهَبَ لَهُ، فَإِنْ وَجَدَ مُجْتَهِدًا قَلَّدَهُ. وَإِنْ لَمْ يَجِدْهُ، وَوَجَدَ مُتَبَحِّرًا فِي مَذْهَبٍ، فَإِنَّهُ يُفْتِيهِ عَلَى مَذْهَبِ نَفْسِهِ، وَإِنْ كَانَ الْعَامِّيُّ لَا يَعْتَقِدُ مَذْهَبَهُ. وَهَذَا تَصْرِيحٌ بِأَنَّهُ يُقَلِّدُ الْمُتَبَحِّرَ فِي نَفْسِهِ.
ص101 – كتاب روضة الطالبين وعمدة المفتين – كتاب القضاء
Shaykh Yusuf Weltch is a teacher of Arabic, Islamic law, and spirituality. After accepting Islam in 2008, he then completed four years at the Darul Uloom seminary in New York, where he studied Arabic and the traditional sciences. He then traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he stayed for three years studying in Dar Al-Mustafa under some of the greatest scholars of our time, including Habib Umar Bin Hafiz, Habib Kadhim al-Saqqaf, and Shaykh Umar al-Khatib. In Tarim, Shaykh Yusuf completed the memorization of the Qur’an and studied beliefs, legal methodology, hadith methodology, Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic history, and several texts on spirituality. He joined the SeekersGuidance faculty in the summer of 2019.