The Ahl Al-Sunnah’s Schools
Schools of Theology
In terms of theology, there are two schools:
1. The Maturidi school, founded by Imam Maturidi
2. The Ash`ariyyah school, founded by Imam Ash`ari
These two schools are essentially one. However, they differ in terms of about forty matters. These differences, however, consist only matters of detail.
The Maturidi School
The founder of the Maturidi school is Abu Mansur Muhammad ibn Mahmud al-Maturidi, who is commonly known as Imam Maturidi. He was born in Samarkand in 238 AH.
He was of Turkish origin and was taught by students of al-Imam al-Azam Abu Hanifah. He established a fine link between reason and communication in his works and erected an immovable wall against heretical ideas by training students who were highly devoted to the Ahl al-Sunnah’s beliefs. He made a considerable contribution to transmitting the Ahl al-Sunnah’s convictions to subsequent generations.
Imam Maturidi is the teacher on matters of faith to all Hanafi Muslims. His school is recognized by many Muslims, especially the Turks. Some of his books have survived to the present day, among them his Kitab al-Tawhid and Ta’wilat al-Qur’an.
Some of the basic tenets that constitute the essence of the Ahl al-Sunnah’s belief are:
- Allah’s (swt) existence and oneness: We are responsible for having faith in Allah (swt), Whose work is one with His Being. Allah (swt) has attributes that are part of His Divine essence. Allah’s attribute of Kalam exists together with His Being.
- Faith consists of confessing belief verbally and accepting in one’s heart. Nobody who confesses verbally but rejects this faith in his heart can be considered a believer. The place of faith is the heart, and no one can overcome it once it is fully established therein.
- Just as it is not right to say that someone who has faith is not a Muslim, it is equally improper and impermissible to say that anyone who fulfils all of Islam’s tenets is not a believer. Deeds are not part of faith.
- When a person decides to do something, Allah (swt) creates the power for it to be carried out. This created power accompanies the action. The resulting action causes the person to become worthy of receiving a reward or a punishment, depending on the underlying intention.
- Such serious sins as adultery, murder, or drinking alcohol do not remove a Muslim from the fold of Islam. Whoever commits such sins will be forgiven if he repents.
- Our Prophet (saas) will intercede for those people who belong to his community, even for those who have committed serious sins. This is a grace from Allah (swt).
The Ash`Ariyyah School
Abu al-Hasan al-Ash`ari, the founder of this school, was born in Basra in 260 AH. He studied with Abu `Ali al-Jubba'i, a Mu’tazili scholar, until he was forty years old.
Imam al-Ash’ari wrote several books aimed at Mu’tazilah, who were Ahl al-Bid`ah (people of [un-Islamic] innovation), philosophers, naturalists, atheists, Jews, and Christians. The first two of his works that come to mind are the Risalat al-Iman and the Maqalat al-Islamiyyin. Some twenty of his works have come down to us. It is said that he performed the morning prayer for twenty years while in the same state of ablution with which he had performed the night prayer. He died in Baghdad in 324 AH.
Some members of the Shafi`i and Maliki schools of thought are linked to the Ash`ariyyah in terms of creed. The Ash’ariyyah school is widely accepted, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.
The views of Imam al-Ash`ari are very important in forming the Ahl al-Sunnah’s creed. Apart from the subject of free will, there was no great difference of opinion with al-Maturidi. Some of al-Ash`ari’s tenets are as follows:
- The reckoning in the grave (adhab al-qadr), the gathering of humanity on the Day of Resurrection (hashr), and as-sirat (bridge) and al-mizan (just balance) are true. The Qur’an is a miracle in terms of its literary style. No one can compose an equivalent document.
- It is essential that a prophet perform miracles. The Awliya’ can also exhibit wonders (karamah). Prophets perform their miracles to prove their prophethood. A wali, on the other hand, must not attain superiority and must conceal his karamah.
- Anyone who received Allah’s (swt) revelation through an angel and performs miracles that seem to violate the laws of nature is a nabi.
- By the will of Allah (swt), the Prophet (saas) will intercede on the believers’ behalf. Also, it is permissible for believers to see Allah (swt), the One and Incomparable, in the Hereafter. He sends good and evil to humanity, creates the deeds that they perform, and bestows upon people the necessary power to perform an action.
The Schools of Fiqh
The Ahl al-Sunnah contains four schools of fiqh:
This section shall concentrate on these four imams and their views.
The Hanafi School and Al-Imam Al-A`zam Abu Hanifah
Al-Imam al-A`zam Abu Hanifah was born in Kufa in 80 AH. His given name was an-Nu`man ibn Thabit. Some historical accounts say that he was of Turkish origin. His father, a wealthy merchant, had presented himself to Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra), who gave him his blessing and prayed for his offspring.
Abu Hanifah memorized the Qur’an at an early age and taught himself Arabic language and literature, jurisprudence (fiqh), the hadiths, and theology (kalam). He debated people in the region who held heretical views and persuaded most of them. As a result, his reputation began to spread.
His knowledge, intelligence, virtue, and taqwa were very great. Nobility in his teaching and the ease and perfection in his school have met with the favor of all Muslims.
Back then there was a huge need for knowledge concerning fiqh, so al-Imam al-A`zam abandoned commerce and devoted himself to studying jurisprudential matters. At the same time, he continued his study of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and began deriving rulings from them. He also began researching the hadiths and examining those matters over which the Companions disagreed.
During his thirty years in the madrassah, he taught more than 4,000 students, among them such future mujtahids (a scholar who derives legal rulings) as Abu Yusuf, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, and Hasan ibn Ziyad.
He told his students that their knowledge would be based on solid foundations as long as they adhered to the following basic tenets:
After spending time with several Islamic scholars, he attached himself to Hammad ibn Abi Sulayman, one of the greatest scholars of that time. Following his death, all eyes turned in Abu Hanifah’s direction.
The governor of Iraq, Yazid ibn Amr, offered him the post of qadi (religious judge) to sever his influence over the public. When Abu Hanifah rejected this proposition, he was tortured for days and then imprisoned. However, he was soon released due to the government’s fear of the public’s reaction.
Abu Hanifah lived for many years in the Hijaz, and returned to Kufa after the Abbasids came to power. However, little changed under Abbasid rule. His response to Caliph al-Mansur’s request that he become qadi of Baghdad was: “If I am threatened with drowning in the River Euphrates in the event that I decline this proposal, then I prefer to drown. There are many around you who stand in need.” At this, al-Mansur had him tortured for several days. This event ruined his health, and he died in Baghdad in 150 AH. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims still visit his tomb every year.
Following al-Imam al-A`zam’s death, his students produced books by collecting his fatwas and the hadiths he had related, and presenting them in a systematic form. Deriving new rulings in the light of their teacher’s views, they spread his ideas throughout the Islamic world. As a result, his teachings gradually became the Hanafi school, which still has many active followers in Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Siberia, China, Pakistan, Albania, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq.
Some of al-Imam al-A`zam’s works that have come down to the present day are Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, ‘Alim wa al-Muta‘allim, Al-Risalah, five al-Hashiyyah books, al-Qasidat an-Nu’maniyyah, and Marifat al-Mazahib.
Some noteworthy extracts from his works are given below:
“Show people as much love as you can. Greet everyone, even the very lowly. If you gather with others in an assembly and discuss various problems, during which someone expresses an idea to which you are opposed, do not oppose them. If they ask you, give your opinion, speak what is in your heart, and say that there are such and such opinions on this subject and the proof is as follows. Thus, they will listen to you and understand the degree of your knowledge.
Give knowledge to all who approach you and let each one learn something from you. Give them important things, not trivial ones. Be like a friend to them, even make witty remarks by way of jokes, because friendship and sincerity ensure the continuation of knowledge.
Treat them gently and be tolerant. Show no boredom or weariness to anyone. Comport yourself as like one of them.
Trust no one’s friendship until it has been proven. Do not be friends with anyone low or vulgar. Be virtuous, generous, and deep of heart. Your clothes should be clean and new. Have a good horse to ride. Use pleasant scents. Be generous when you give people food to eat and satisfy everyone. Whenever you hear of any strife or corruption, hasten to resolve it. Visit those who visit you and those who do not. Always do good, whether others wish you good or ill. Forgive and turn a blind eye to some things. Abandon those things that distress you and try to do what is right. Visit those of your companions who fall ill, and ask after those you do not see. Take an interest in those who do not come to you.” (From Abu Hanifah’s bequest to his student Abu Yusuf.)
“Know that deeds go along with knowledge, just as the limbs move thanks to the vision of the eyes. A few good deeds with knowledge are better than much labor with ignorance. This resembles the following proverb: even if a man has little food with him, he will be saved if he knows the right path. That man is still in a better position than someone who has much food but does not know the way. As Allah (swt) tells us: ‘Are they the same – those who know and those who do not know? It is only people of intelligence who pay heed.’” (Osman Keskio¤lu, Abu Hanifah, M. Abu Zehra, p. 177)
Some of al-Imam al-A`zam’s advice to Abu Yusuf appears in Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum's Ma’rifatname, from which the following extracts have been taken:
May each student consider him your son. Let labor directed toward [acquiring] knowledge increase every day. Do not chat with those who do not listen to you and people in the markets. Have no fear of speaking the truth to anyone. Perform more, not fewer, religious observances than the masses. Do not sit and talk with deniers and Ahl al-Bid`ah, but invite them to the religion when the circumstances are appropriate. I bequeath these things to you and to everyone. May you follow this path and lead the people to the true path.”
The Shafi`i School and Imam Al-Shafi`i
Imam al-Shafi`i was born in Gaza in 150 AH. Islamic scholars have considered it significant that he was born in the same year that Abu Hanifah died. Imam al-Shafi`i lost his father at an early age and spent much of his childhood in poverty.
He moved to Makkah and began studying the hadiths. In addition, he memorized the Qur’an at an early age and subsequently attached himself to Imam Malik. From this point on, after this ground in Islamic learning, he devoted himself to the study of fiqh.
At the age of 34 he was unjustly accused of spreading Shiite propaganda by the governor of Yemen and imprisoned. Nine people affiliated to al-Shafi‘i were killed – the man himself was only spared after last-gasp interventions of a number of powerful supporters.
After two years studying and researching in Makkah he returned to Baghdad. By this time al-Shafi‘i’s fame had begun spreading throughout the Islamic world. He began looking for a more comfortable environment and chose Egypt as his adopted home.
The governor and people of Egypt welcomed al-Shafi‘i’s arrival. He was protected by the governor until the end of his lifetime and a share set aside for the line of the Prophet (saas) was given to him.
Imam al-Shafi‘i spent his life on the path of Islam, left many works for the subsequent generations and was responsible for training a great number of students as a legacy. In addition, he struggled relentlessly against such heretical sects as the Mu’tazila and other deviant organizations. He passed away in 204 AH in Egypt.
He left behind himself such invaluable works as the Ahqam al-Qur’an, As-Sunan, Kitab al-Umm and Musnad ash-Shafi‘i. Many Muslims in Iraq, Eastern Anatolia, India, Palestine, the Hijaz, the Philippines, Yemen, Egypt and Syria act according to the Shafi‘i school and his influence and contribution to Islamic learning and understanding is still felt in the Muslim world today.
Imam al-Shafi‘i describes the essence of the school he established in these terms: “Not everyone may know the hadiths of the Prophet. If I propose any idea or put forward any tenet without knowing that these are in contravention of the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah, then it is the word of the Messenger by which people must abide. That is my school. If I relate a hadith from the Messenger of Allah but do not act in its light, what earth will bear me and what sky will give me shade? The hadith of the Prophet is of sublime importance to me.”
Some of Imam Al-Shafi‘i’s Sayings:
“If one of you wishes to content all the people, he cannot. The servant must be careful to have moral sincerity. Every good work he performs must remain between him and Allah.”
“The pursuit of knowledge is better than supererogatory prayer. Because supererogatory prayer benefits only the individual, whereas knowledge benefits the entire community.”
“If anyone gives secret advice to his brother in faith, he will have engaged in good counseling and adorned him with good manners. If he seeks to give advice openly in public it will have no effect. He will, in a sense, have condemned the other party, and thus shamed him.”
“Let he who desires the bliss of the Hereafter have sincerity in knowledge.”
“Whoever tries to give advice through his deeds is also a guidance.”
“The following three conditions are signs of the genuine nature of one’s love for his brother in religion:
The Maliki School and Imam Malik
According to the most reliable accounts, Imam Malik ibn Anas was born in Madinah in 93 AH. As the son of a family steeped in the study of hadiths, he made considerable progress in this field in a very short space of time. He was placed at the side of the famous scholar Ibn Hurmuz at a young age and remained with him for the next 13 years. He began teaching at the age of 17, and the interest that onlookers shown in him actually proved to be greater than the interest his own teachers aroused. Despite being 13 years older, Abu Hanifah knelt before him and received instruction from him.
The works written about Imam Malik generally refer to his superior memory and intelligence and describe his patience, forbearance, sincerity, foresight, and grandeur as exemplary. This is what Imam Malik is renowned for. He occupies a critical position in the science of the hadiths and was well-respected for how scrupulous he was when determining the authenticity of the traditions. He carefully researched those reporting traditions and only accepted those which were completely reliable.
Imam Malik never acted in haste when issuing fatwas. When consulted about a problem he would say, “Go now and let me investigate this problem.” Asked why he behaved in this way, he would respond, “I shall have to account for fatwas. Because I have a sincere fear of the Day of Judgment.”
Like Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik too attracted the wrath of Caliph al-Mansur, and was tortured in prisons for days on end. Years later, however, al-Mansur realized the error of his ways and apologized to Imam Malik. Imam Malik spent the final years of his life in sickness, dying in the blessed city of Madinah in 179 AH.
Members of his school can today be found in Tripoli, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, the Hijaz, Egypt, Algeria and along the African coast. Imam Malik’s most important work, which he spent 40 years writing, is al-Muwatta’. As the result of his study of more than 100,000 traditions, he used 1,720 of these in his book. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi praised Imam Malik and his great work al-Muwatta’ in his own collection.
The Hanbali School and Imam Ahmad İbn Hanbal
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was born in Baghdad in 164 AH. His life coincided with the most illustrious period of the Abbasid state. Despite losing his father at an early age, he enjoyed an excellent education in the study of religion. He received instruction from several well-known scholars, but was most influenced by Imam al-Shafi‘i. For that reason, he began studying the hadiths; this was a difficult sphere of knowledge to pursue, requiring much travel from one country to another as it did, and especially at an early age.
He had the greatest respect for the teachers who instructed him. During their lifetime he never gave any personal opinion regarding the hadiths, and issued no fatwa on any subject until reaching the age of 40, the age of maturity. This demonstrates his humility – it shows that he did not wish to give major opinions on matters until he felt mature enough to handle this kind of serious intellectual responsibility. With his knowledge and modesty, he quickly became a renowned and respected scholar.
His discourses generally directed his audiences’ attention to three subjects. Seriousness, modesty and spiritual peace dominated his conversation. He did not like to mock anybody and was naturally very respectful of people with whom he conversed.
He would only relate hadiths when requested to do so. In order not to make a mistake he would read the hadiths from their sources rather than relying on memory. Again, this shows his meticulousness and his commitment to the truthful relaying of the sayings of the Prophet (saas).
He made special requests that the hadiths he related to his students should be written down. He also demanded that the fatwas he issued should be described in writing lest they might be misunderstood.
He struggled against heretical movements right up to the end of his life. That resulted in him having serious problems with the ruler of the time, Caliph al-Mutasim. He was arrested and imprisoned in Baghdad. The difficulties he endured elevated him even further in the public eye. The oppression continued even after his release. He was forbidden to hold discourses, and permission was even denied for him to go to the mosque to perform the prayer. One after another his students were cast into prison. His feet were shackled and he began the journey from Baghdad to Tarsus to be brought into the presence of the Caliph, and died on the road in 128 AH.
His school was prevented from spreading because the Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi‘i schools had already spread in Islamic lands during the emergence of the Hanbali school. For that reason, his school has found its feet mainly in Saudi Arabia.
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s most important work is al-Musnad.
He specialized in knowledge of the hadiths. It is reported that he had memorized a million hadith al-sharif. He narrated 30,000 hadiths in al-Musnad. According to the great scholar Kohistani, he narrated 50,700 traditions. His piety, taqwa, and high morality were above all praise.
Subjects Imagined To Represent Sources of Disagreement among the Schools Are Actually Sources of Mercy for the Muslims
Differences among the schools of the Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jama‘ah are actually of enormous benefit to the Islamic world, rather than being damaging to it. Each imam of the four legal schools taught his own ijtihad, but they never attempted to eradicate one another out of mutual hostility. As stated in the hadiths, it is clear that a disagreement based on mutual respect will be a mercy, and history confirms that this is indeed the case. The way that a member of one school is able to imitate another school when necessary is the clearest indication of this.
Indeed, Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz says this on the subject:
“I would be unwilling for the community of the Messenger of Allah not to disagree over matters of fiqh, because it would be difficult for people if they all agreed on a similar view. If someone abided by the words of one of them, that would be the Sunnah for him.” (Muhammad Abu Zahra, Tareekh al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah)
It is a known fact in the belief system of the Ahl al-Sunnah that all sincere ideas, ijtihad and interpretation in the field of implementation facilitated the spread of Islam to different environments and lands.
The most important factor in preparing the ground for these different interpretations of the Companions is the different interpretation of the hadiths. After the Qur’an, the Sunnah, in other words the hadiths, is the most important point of reference in Islam. The imams of the schools have stressed the importance of holding fast to the Sunnah and stated that whoever abandons the Sunnah will be among the losers.
They emphasized the importance of abiding by the Sunnah of the Messenger (saas) as follows.
“People have been saved as long as there have been those among them who have occupied themselves with the hadiths. Whenever they seek knowledge outside the hadiths, then corruption arises. Avoid issuing commandments on the basis of your own personal opinions on any matter regarding the religion of Allah, but follow the Sunnah. Anyone who abandons the Sunnah will fall into deviation.” (ash-Sharani, al-Mizan 1: 51)
“If I arrive at a different commandment having related a hadith of the Messenger of Allah, what sky will shade me, what earth will bear me?”
“The Sunnah is like the ark of Nuh (as). Whoever boards that ark will be saved, but whoever does not will drown.”
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal:
“Many bid‘ahs have arisen. Whoever is ignorant of the hadiths will fall into those bid‘ahs.”
There is no disagreement among the imams of the schools of the Ahl al-Sunnah with regard to the virtues of the Sunnah. Some differences have, however, emerged regarding the understanding of these hadiths. The fact that the imams of the schools possessed different or more or less knowledge of the hadiths compared to one another led to various different rulings being issued. The school imams would first turn to the Qur’an whenever an issue was brought to them. In the absence of any relevant provision on the subject in the Qur’an, they would then consider the Sunnah of the Prophet (saas). If they couldn’t find it in the Sunnah, then they would look into how the Companions behaved. In the event that no definitive conclusion could be drawn from this either, a decision was taken on the basis of ijtihad. Since ijtihads could differ, some differences arose between the schools.
Ultimately, it is impossible for any one person to have a complete mastery of the hadiths. This always needs to be remembered. Indeed, as Imam al-Shafi‘i stated:
“I know of nobody who knows all of the Sunnah, or all of the hadiths. Only if the knowledge of all the scholars of the hadiths were collected together could all the Sunnah be known. Since the hadiths of scholars are widely dispersed, there will of course be hadiths unknown to a particular scholar. The hadiths one scholar does not know will be known by another.”
Some have considered deeds performed by the Prophet (saas) at various times as compulsory observances, while others have interpreted them as supererogatory. There are several instances of this in the schools of the Ahl al-Sunnah. In addition, the inability to fully understand an action taken by the Prophet (saas) or else an action of his being witnessed only in its second half also led to the emergence of various differences.
The Companions’ words are another reason for the differences between the schools of thought. For example, the Hanafis and Malikis prefer the Companions’ words to analogical reasoning (qiyas), while in some circumstances the Shafi`is do not accept a Companion’s report. This has led to different fatwas being issued. In addition, different climates, geographical features, traditions, and customs have also given rise to this phenomenon.
The imams of the schools have kept disputes outside the sphere of personal passions and sought only to gain Allah’s (swt) approval. They have never claimed that only their own views represented the truth; rather, they have said that their approach could be more suitable.
Indeed, Imam al-A`zam Abu Hanifah has said: “Our thoughts consist of an opinion and are the best opinion we have. If someone else proposes a better opinion, then that one should be followed, rather than ours.” (Muhammad Abu Zahra, Tareekh al-Madhahib al-Islamiyah)
When one examines the imams’ lives, one sees that rather than mutual accusations, there were always bonds of mutual respect among them. In his Catechism, Omer Nasuhi Bilmen reports that this respect is a sign of the Ahl al-Sunnah:
“The adherents of each of the four schools of these four mujtahids all believe that their own school is better, more accurate, and more efficacious and proper in terms of the Sunnah. Otherwise, there would be no meaning in their choosing that particular school. But they never even think of denigrating the other schools. They respect all four schools. That respect is a sign of the Ahl al-Sunnah.” (Omer Nasuhi Bilmen, The Great Islamic Catechism, p. 42)
The schools’ disagreements were constructive, rather than destructive. This also does not contradict Allah’s (swt) command that Muslims should avoid disputes with one another, for such differences have actually always been a mercy for the believers.