In their personal lives, are Muslims required to perform taqlid [practice by way of imitation] of only one madhhab [school of law]? If not, when can they go out of the one that they have studied or practiced?
Different ulama [scholars] in different madhhabs [schools of law] have different considerations and principles in looking at this question. The below is a mainstream understanding within the madhhab of Imam al-Shafi’i.
(Out of the four extant schools for Sunni Muslims, the madhhab of Imam al-Shafi’i is the third that was founded. It is the school of nearly all Sunni Muslims in Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines), east Africa (Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya), Yemen and significant parts of the rest of the Arab world.)
It is important to note: this is a general comment on the issue of talfiq [mixing between different opinions in different schools of law] that applies to most lay (unspecialised in legal studies or awaam] Muslims. Considerations differ for muftis in giving fatwa; considerations might differ for those who are studying a madhhab to a more advanced level; those who receive specific instruction as part of their tarbiya [training] in a particular relationship with a teacher; and so on.
A Typical Shafi’i Viewpoint on Talfiq: Conditions
As noted above, the details around this issue may differ within a particular madhhab, or between madhhabs. A mainstream understanding in the Shafi’i school is as follows, nevertheless, may be understood as follows.
Generally, most individual Muslims may depart from their taqlid [practice by way of imitation] of the madhhab that one has studied or been taught if the following conditions are met:
Staying within the extant schools
- Such a departure entails following an alternative position that is transmitted reliably. Different scholars will have different positions on what ‘reliably’ means practically speaking – a precautionary view would be to limit it to well-known views within one of the four extant schools, though there are other viewpoints on this issue, which are available to the expert jurisprudent to evaluate. It is advisable that one learns that position from someone who is properly familiar and trained with it, rather than learning that position simply by picking up a book.
Impermissible and permissible talfiq
- That one is not guilty of impermissible talfiq, according to preferred precautionary opinion.Impermissible talfiq means that the end result of one’s combination of different opinions means that the final outcome is one that is not valid according to any of the madhhabs.By way of example: after performing wudu’ [ablutions] in a way that is only acceptable in Shafi’i and Hanafi schools, one bleeds (which breaks wudu’ in the Hanafi school), but considers his wudu’ intact based on the Shafi’i school (in which bleeding does not break wudu’). Later, he touches his wife and considers his wudu’ intact based on the Hanafi school (in which touching between spouses does not break wudu’). The end result being that his wudu is not valid according to both the Shafi’i and Hanafi schools respectively.
- There is a mainstream understanding, represented by the likes of Ibn Ziyad al-Yamani in the Shafi’i school,that talfiq is only problematic if it takes place in a single ritual (such as wudu’ mentioned above). It would mean one could do wudu’ according to one school, and salat (prayer) according to another, without considering this to be problematic talfiq in any way.
Having a need, and not treating religion like a play-thing
- Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, an authoritative scholar in the Shafi’i school, notes in his Tuhfah al-Muhtaj: “If al-mushaqqa [hardship] increases (as a result) of iltizam [being committed] to our madhhab, then there is no shame in withdrawing (from that) by taqlid to another school.” Imam al-Nawawi, one of the foremost authorities in the Shafi’i school, elaborates upon this further in his Minhaj al-Talibin, which Ibn Hajar’s work is a commentary on: “That which the proof necessitates is that a layman is not obligated to follow a specific madhhab.”
- However, Imam al-Nawawi immediately goes on to note: “Instead, he seeks a fatwa (religious ruling) from whoever he wishes, provided he does not chase after concessions (emphasis mine). Perhaps those who prevented him (from following other schools) did so because they were not convinced he would not chase after concessions.”
- There are three points to be kept in mind here. The first is that generally and ordinarily speaking, Imam al-Nawawi confirms that a layman who does not have a madhhab in the first place, is at liberty to seek and apply a fatwa via whatever legitimate jurist might tell him, as does Ibn Hajar. The guidelines mentioned here are more applicable to individuals who have consciously chosen a school to study and practice, at whatever level.
- The second thing, however, is that in so doing, a constant and exhaustive search of the most lenient positions in the various schools (what would be described as ‘tatabbu’ al-rukhas’) is hardly advisable in terms of safeguarding one’s religion.
- The third point Imam al-Nawawi makes hints at the reason behind the second. Seeking out the most lenient positions is the opposite of precaution and taking one’s religion seriously. In other words, it turns one’s religion into something of a plaything, and is dangerous for one’s spiritual development.
- To avoid treating one’s religion like a plaything, indeed, it is advisable to consciously try to find a hajja [need] of some sort in terms of going outside of one’s school – such an attempt will, insha’Allah, safeguard someone from the concern Imam al-Nawawi points out above about ‘chasing after concessions’.
- The scholars have differed on what constitutes a ‘need’, and there is thus some leeway in this regard – but one should consider it carefully. Avoiding undue hardship would be an example of a ‘hajja’, for example. Again, the point to consider here is simply this – is one ‘chasing after concessions’, and making that the basis of their practice? Or does one genuinely have a need? Or is someone simply asking the first most qualified person they came across to ask, rather than seeking out the most lenient opinion? These are questions to be asked of one’s self.
- This point is less about whether the going out of one’s school will be valid or not, and more about a far wider consideration – how seriously one takes their commitment to their religion. If one is constantly seeking out the easiest position from among the schools, then many scholars, such as the aforementioned Ibn Hajar al-Haytami,will speak of their concern that such a person may become spiritually corrupted.
Philosophical and intellectual consistency
- On an intellectual level, one can only perform talfiq if one genuinely considers the position one is now taking from that is different from the one that one was taking before, is a valid one and possibly the correct one.
- If one genuinely believes that the position one was taking previous is actually the stronger and correct position, then one cannot intellectually then form a honest intention when it comes to following a contrary position. As such, it makes the action of talfiq effectively very difficult. If one is convinced of such an assessment of a position, then one should act upon it, and shouldn’t abandon it.
- As a result of these considerations, it becomes intellectually more difficult for more advanced students in a particular school to engage in talfiq. It is not impossible, but this intellectual honesty that is linked to intention is what makes the ability to engage in talfiq more difficult, the more one is educated in a particular school.
- As such, many of our scholars, such as Imam al-Kurdi, indicated that this preferable and easier intellectually and consciously to follow a less reliable opinion in one’s own school than to follow another school. This is because that in such a scenario, one is still able to consider that the same usul [legal methodology] is at work, because both positions are underpinned by the same usul in the same madhhab. When one goes outside of a school, one is implicitly accepting that not only the position may be valid, but also the different usul may be as well.
As noted, this is the general set of guidelines. They alter according to the level of learning of a person; if one is giving fatwa, another set of considerations apply; the tarbiya [training] of a particular student by a teacher; and so forth. By way of an example: many scholars, for example, will insist that their students actively avoid taking dispensations, even when it is ordinarily permitted to do so, in order to train themselves in the spiritual path. This is not a general point that is necessarily applicable to all Muslims.
As an example of how this might alter altogether – and without claiming this is the standard, normal approach – Imam Abdul-Wahhab al-Sha’rani, a prominent Egyptian scholar (b. 891 Hijri) and Shadhuli Sufi, offered the view that the pious, who are the ‘strong’, would always pursue the ‘azima [stricter] opinion from among the schools. In his perspective, the Sufi, in his struggle against his lower self would choose the stricter opinions. This would be during a particular period of the Sufi’s sulūk [wayfaring or path] – and it would be a matter of intense ethical consideration, as opposed to the legal domain per se, in that it is not everyone who is supposed to follow such a way of practice. At another stage of sulūk – including at an advanced stage – considerations might be different.
Any student of knowledge seeking to know how to apply such understanding to their lives in any given circumstance is advised to seek counsel from a faqih [jurisprudent] they trust, and who is familiar with their circumstances. May God grant us all understanding, Ameen!
Shaykh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer
Born to an English father and to an Egyptian mother of ʿAbbāsī-Sudanese & Ḥasanī-Moroccan heritage, Shaykh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer was raised between England and different parts of the Arab world, before becoming educated at Sheffield and Warwick universities to post-doctoral levels in law and the social sciences.
Shaykh Hisham studied – and studies – the Islamic tradition in the UK, Egypt, South Africa, the Gambia, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere, keeping the company of traditionally trained scholars. These included the contemporary polymath, Tan Sri Professor Sayyid M. Naquib al-Attas, who mentored him in Malaysia, and Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, the South African sage and khalifa of the Makkan exemplar, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki.
This was alongside Dr Hellyer’s research and academic career in institutions including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Islamic Studies, Harvard University, and the Royal Institute (RUSI). His published books include “A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Makkan Sages”, “A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt”, “The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse”, and “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans”.
A member of the Council of the British Board of Scholars and Imams, he was appointed as the only Senior Scholar of Azzawia Institute in South Africa by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, and the first professorial fellow in Islamic Studies at Cambridge Muslim College of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad/Dr. Timothy J. Winter. In 2020, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in recognition of achievements to social change. @hahellyer