What is a madhab?

Madhab is an Arabic word which in Islam refers to 'school of thought'. Linguistically, the word madhab means a path or vision that is embraced.

The school of thought deals with all matters of jurisprudence (Fiqh) in Islam. Think, for example, of the rulings of inheritance, behavior, foods and all kinds of other issues.

The various madhahib (plural of madhab) use the Qur'an, Sunnah, consensus (Ijmaa') and analogy in establishing a ruling.

There are several madhahib in Islam. Well-known schools of thought are: Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali and Hanafi.

A madhab is often confused with sect. There is a big difference between the two, namely that one deals with Fiqh and the other with Aqeedah.

How madhahib originated

After the death of the Prophet (ﷺ), the Sahaba spread to different places of the Arab countries. Once the Sahaba dispersed, several questions came from residents.

Various questions and situations arose, to which the Companions had to answer. They did that through the Quran and Sunnah. Didn't those two sources answer a situation? Then they switched to consensus (Ijmaa') and analogy (Qiyas).

So the territories differed from rulings in that the Companions differed from one another in giving judgment. The students of the Companions (Tabi'in) reported the opinions and judgments of their teachers. Because of these narrations, the schools of thought that followed were aware of the differences in Fiqh.

Beginning of the schools of thought

The different schools of thought committed themselves to find the correct judgment on an issue. They did this by thorough research and examination of the Companions judgments. Did they find an opinion to be correct? Then it was added in the madhab. So you can see a school of thought as a compilation of Fiqh.

The schools of thought have also included different judgments in which there are no differences. These are the general regulations such as making supplications, obligation of prayer, wearing a Hijab and other matters.

Following a madhab

Perhaps you have been taught that following a madhab is obligatory. But is it really mandatory to follow one?

It is not obligatory in Islam to follow a specific madhab. The main reason for this is because blind following is not allowed. And this also applies to Fiqh. schools of thought can make mistakes.

Every Muslim is expected to find out the truth before following anything. The madhabs differ on certain issues. And then it is the intention to put the opinions side by side, and to investigate. Which opinion is correct, you follow. Even though this would be another madhab that you have less inclination to.

Schools of thought warn against blind following

The madhabs have made it clear that they should not be followed blindly. They are not perfect. The correctness of an opinion must therefore be examined. And you do that through the Qur'an, Sunnah or Ijmaa' of the Companions.

Check out the evidence provided by a specific school of thought. Is the evidence stronger than the other madhahib? Then you follow it.

Abu Hanifah said: "It's wrong for anyone to accept our opinion if they do not know where we got it from." [I'lam al-Muwaqqi' in 3/470]

Malik ibn Anas said: "Well, I am only human. Sometimes I am right, and at [other] times I am wrong. So look at my sayings: what agrees with the Book and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever contradicts it, let it go." [Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm No. 1435]

Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i said: "Don't follow me blindly." [Adab al-Shafi‘i p.51 by Ibn Abi Haatim]

Ahmad ibn Hanbal said: "Do not blindly follow Malik, Awza'ee or the like, but take from the narrations." [Masail p. 277 of Abu Dawud]

Attribute to a particular madhab

So, for the reasons mentioned above, it is obvious to avoid blindly following the madhahib. It sometimes happens that people name themselves after a certain madhab.

Think for example of names such as: Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi'i etc. These names are actually not correct, because following a specific madhab is not correct.

It is not from Islam to ascribe oneself to a particular madhab. This is therefore also seen as an innovation (Bid'ah).

The different madhahib

Various schools of thought have arisen in Islam. schools of thought like: Maliki, Hanbali, Shafi'i are well known. But there are also schools of thought that are less well known, such as: Thawri, Awza'ee, Layth and others.

Through time there have been four main madhabs chosen by people. So it is not the case that only those exist, but that they are most followed.

Some see the main madhabs as five, including Dhahiri. This madhab is not well known, because it originated quite late. Its followers are also few.

1. Hanafi

The school of Abu Hanifa is regarded as the first school of thought that is established. The founder, Abu Hanifa, lived in Kufa (city in Iraq) and was of Persian origin. The madhab is best known in large parts of Asia. In countries such as India, Pakistan and Turkey this school of thought is most strictly followed.

Many who ascribe to this madhab do not have a Sunni background. They often belong to the groups: Murjiah, Dheobandi, Ash'ari or Maturidi.

These groups occur because the place which in the Madhab is populair. The Murjiah followers of Hanafi madhab take their creed from its founder, Abu Hanifa.

The madhab is known for its frequent use of Qiyas (analogy) and Raiyy (opinion). This created many differences in the school with that of the schools of thought that came later (which used the Qur'an and Sunnah first).

2. Maliki

The school of thought of Malik ibn Anas (Imam Malik) came right after that of Abu Hanifa. Imam Malik lived in Medina and was Arab by origin. He distinguished himself from other schools of thought by taking the customs of Medina as proof. He took his Fiqh from the scholars of Madinah, who were students of Sahaba.

Maliki madhab spread to northern Africa two centuries later. Think, for example, of countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and even parts of Egypt.

Many of the Maliki madhab adherents are Ash'ari and Sufist in creed. That does not stem from the madhab itself. These groups are mainly known in Morocco.

3. Shafi'i

The school of thought of Muhammad ibn Idris Al-Shafi'i (Imam Shafi'i) came right after that of Imam Malik. Imam Shafi'i is a student of Imam Malik, and teacher of Imam Ahmad.

Imam Shafi'i was an Arab and later in life traveled to different areas. He eventually settled in Egypt. He was known for his strong hold on the sources.

Shafi'i madhab is mainly found in Indonesia, Yemen and Egypt. Followers of the Shafi'i madhab are like the Maliki madhab, mainly Ash'ari in creed. This is because of the areas where his madhab is present.

4. Hanbali

The school of thought of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Imam Ahmad) came immediately after that of Imam Shafi'i. It thus also makes the last madhab of the last three generations of Islam.

Imam Ahmad came from Baghdad (city in Iraq) and was an Arab who traveled to different areas throughout his life. He had several students he taught including Bukhari, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud and others.

Hanbali madhab is mainly found in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Syria. Many of the followers call themselves Salafi in creed.

Importance of a madhab

With the establishment and presence of a madhab you can clearly see what the rulings of a specific situation are.

Without a madhab that would mean that you would have to look for a ruling yourself. And that requires a long time of research, effort and expertise.

The various madhahib have studied Fiqh (jurisprudence). Jurisprudence is a great science in Islam. For example, with Fiqh you need to fully know the context and understanding of a source.

With the use of the madhahib you can now simply view the rulings in a collection. That is beneficial if you do not have the expertise to dive into it.

It is therefore not possible to declare things as halal or haram yourself. You require a deep knowledge of jurispudence to be able to make such claims.

Abu Athari writes about basic principles within Islam. He uses his critical and well-researched way to spread knowledge of the first three Muslim generations.

Questions about Islam?

Do you have questions that came to mind while reading our pages? Or do you have general questions that you would like an answer to? We answer you within 48 hours.

Ask question