Can I Follow Another School (Madhhab) When I Need To?

Shafi'i Fiqh
Hanafi Fiqh

Answered by Shaykh Irshaad Sedick

Question

Is it permissible for a follower of the Shafi’i School to follow the fatawa (legal rulings) of other Schools in case of need, and what is the proper way of doing so without falling into sin?

Answer

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate.

May Allah guide every dimension of our lives to that which pleases Him.

It is permissible for the general public to follow the opinions of reliable scholarship within the four Sunni Schools of Law. Still, it is better to follow one School predominantly, and Allah knows best.

Following a School of Law

Allah says: “Ask those who recall if you know not” [Quran, 16:43].

By consensus of all scholars (ijma), this verse is evidence of someone who does not know a ruling in Sacred Law or the evidence to follow someone who does. Virtually all scholars of fundamentals of Islamic law have made this verse their principal evidence that the ordinary person (non-mujtahid) must follow the scholar who is an authoritative interpreter of the religious law of Islam (mujtahid). [Bhuti, La Madhhabiyya]

Following the “strongest position” on any matter is not a very accurate description of how the Schools of Thought work. Each of the four recognized schools of Sunni Islam is the strongest, based on its unique methodology in interpreting the Sacred Law from the Quran, Sunna, and other sources from the teachings of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace).

Even if one should base the strength of a particular school purely on the authenticity of the Prophetic narrations it relies on, then that requires a level of scholarly expertise beyond the reach of non-scholars and would inevitably still result in different views like the different Schools of Thought. We, therefore, advise you to follow the School of Thought that is most accessible to you based on your region and what the majority of scholars there teach.

Why Is Following One School Better?

1 – Learning the injunctions from one School is more accessible and within everyone’s capacity.

2 – Learning from one school results in less confusion for the non-scholar 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 good intention which then produces sound actions.” [‘Ayni; ‘Umda al-Qari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari]

A Single Legal School does Not bind the General Public

The opinions of the Hanafi, Shafi’i, and Maliki scholars, along with many Hanbali scholars, is that the general public (i.e., the non-scholars) is not bound to a single legal school (al-‘ami la madhaba lahu). Even if the general public 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 worship and practice (Fiqh) are based on the teachings of a valid Mujtahid Imam, whoever they may be. [Ibid.]

There were not only four Imams in the early centuries of Islam; there were many. Those who lived in those times could have followed any Imam of their choosing.

The teachings (principles, rulings, and methodology) of the other Schools were not transmitted and recorded as comprehensively as the four extant Schools, and therefore, they had not survived. That said, it is the Muslim’s prerogative to follow any of the four Schools at this time.

Combining Between Schools

One is not required to follow only one of the four Schools in every issue of Islamic law. One could, for example, follow the Hanafi School in their business transactions and the Shaf’i School in worship.

It is prohibited to pursue different opinions if one (a) merely seeks out dispensations or (b) combines opinions of different Schools that would lead to a result invalid by those Schools – this is known as talfiq. [Ibid.]

Talfiq – The Contradictory Combining of Opinions

The laws of a School are not arbitrary opinions of no correlation to one another; instead, each legal School is based on foundational principles from which all the injunctions of the School are derived congruously and harmoniously.

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).

For example, a Muslim (let’s call him Zayd) intends to pray and performs ablution for the prayer. After that, he touches the skin of his spouse and says to himself, “According to the School of 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.

Due to the contradictory combining of opinions, Zayd’s wudu and prayer is not valid according to Imam Abu Hanifa, nor is it valid according to Imam Shafi’i. Combining opinions in this manner is prohibited and sinful (fisq). [Ibid]

Statements of the Scholars Regarding Adhering to One Legal School

Hanafi Scholars

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 one particular School does not bind the general public.”

Shafi’i Scholars

Imam al-Nawawi (may Allah have mercy on him) cites Abu al-Fath al-Harawi, a contemporary of Imam al-Shafi‘i, saying, “The opinion of the majority of our companions (i.e., fellow scholars of the Shafi‘i School) is that a particular legal school does not bind the general public. If they find a mujtahid Imam, they follow them…” [Nawawi, Rawda al-Talibin wa ‘Umda al-Muftin]

Some past and contemporary scholars declare following one specific legal School an obligation. This, however, is not the majority opinion.

Recommended Readings

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:
A Reader on Following Schools of Thought

I pray this is of benefit and that Allah guides us all.
[Shaykh] Irshaad Sedick

Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani 

Shaykh Irshaad Sedick was raised in South Africa in a traditional Muslim family. He graduated from Dar al-Ulum al-Arabiyyah al-Islamiyyah in Strand, Western Cape, under the guidance of the late world-renowned scholar, Shaykh Taha Karaan. 

Shaykh Irshaad received Ijaza from many luminaries of the Islamic world, including Shaykh Taha Karaan, Mawlana Yusuf Karaan, and Mawlana Abdul Hafeez Makki, among others.

He is the author of the text “The Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal: A Hujjah or not?” He has served as the Director of the Discover Islam Centre and Al Jeem Foundation. For the last five years till present, he has served as the Khatib of Masjid Ar-Rashideen, Mowbray, Cape Town.

Shaykh Irshaad has thirteen years of teaching experience at some of the leading Islamic institutes in Cape Town). He is currently building an Islamic online learning and media platform called ‘Isnad Academy’ and pursuing his Master’s degree in the study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg. He has a keen interest in healthy living and fitness.