It is not unusual for a Muslim today to see varying forms of Islamic practice. In many cases these may be attributed to the above schools mentioned and further heightened by culture or a general lack of knowledge. In response, many contemporary Muslims have zealously called for the abandonment of these schools; sometimes even forming separatist groups in the process, and demanding the establishment of one legal methodology (i.e., their own).
However, in their idealistic quest for a “utopian community” these reformers may have neglected, or even rejected, the fact that differences have always been part and parcel of the Muslim community and can never be done away with. For example, the great Imam Mālik b. Anas was once invited to have his legal judgments enforced by the Caliph Harūn al-Rashīd. This enforcement would have made Imam Mālik’s school the dominant one within the caliphate, thus marginalizing the others schools and opinions. However, Imam Mālik thoughtfully declined stating: “O Commander of the Faithful. Verily the differences of the scholars are a mercy from Allah to this nation. Each follows what is correct in his view, each is on guidance, [and] each desires Allah.” The other famous Imams are reported to have said similar statements of tolerance.
It is popularly reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “The Jews have split into seventy-one groups; the Christians into seventy-two; and my Community will divide into seventy-three groups- all will be in the fire with the exception of one.” Interestingly this hadīth has been used to advocate absolute conformity to one legal school, or group of scholars, in an almost sectarian craze while the hadīth is actually a warning against sectarianism.
Differences have been present since the time of the Companions whose legacy has been carried on and preserved by their students, and their students’ students. If one wishes to truly follow the Companions one must adhere to one of these schools that have preserved and expanded upon their legal reasoning. They must also accept that each school has valid insights into Sacred Law. This allows flexibility within the rule of law that was recognized by Umar b. Abdul Azīz when he said: “Red camels are not more pleasing to me than the differences among the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him).”
Since the passing of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) the position of law-giver has been placed in the hands of the mujtahids. As Allah has said in Surah an-Nisā: O you who believe! Obey Allah; obey the Messenger and those of authority amongst you . Scholars have understood this verse to mean the jurists of Sacred Law. Not every Muslim is qualified to extract rulings from the sacred texts; he or she must be trained in their proper interpretation and application. It is to the preserved schools of law that one must turn to for this knowledge and until they have mastered it they must rely upon the opinions of those greater than them in understanding; even if they are unaware of the specific proofs for a ruling.
Mastering Sacred Law is not an easy task, yet one of great importance to the Community. To perform his or her task a mujtahid must have profound knowledge of:
1) the Arabic language and poetry
2) verses of legal import in the Qur’ān, their cause, condition, and the abrogated
3) all relevant narrations from and about the Prophet
4) the understanding of the Companions concerning legal issues, and their practices
5) the opinion of the Companion’s students, and their students’ students
6) the states of hadīth narrators
7) consensus’ of the Community and differing opinions
8) methodologies for analogy
9) and the higher objectives of Sacred Law.
Besides these, and even more importantly, a mujtahid must be sincere in their search for the proper ruling. The standards are high, as they should be since we are talking about the rulings of the Most High. Yet, scholars who have obtained these qualities have often still remained true to the methodologies of these traditional schools; becoming mujtahids within their schools tradition. Technically the door for independent legal reasoning remains open, but our distance from the Prophet (peace be upon him), and his Companions makes us more liable to error. The only thing that ties us to them is the tradition that has been passed down and received by us already, and this is the safest route to take. Once convinced of this an individual should choose a school that is easy for them to learn (i.e. a scholar, or material is readily available) and follow more recent scholarship within that school; for it has refined what has come before it, and may be more apt to solve current juristic questions.
Today, it is our long tradition of scholarship which links us to the words of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) through his companions, their students, and those that followed their footsteps. This tradition bridges the stretch of history so that any who seek to follow our Prophet’s Sunnah (peace and blessings be upon him), with the understanding of his Companions and their students, can now find it codified within these schools.