Madhhab Differences in Islam
by GF Haddad ©

On the hadith:

“ikhtilāfu ummatī rahmatun li-nnās ”
"The difference of opinion among the
Companions of Muhammad is a mercy!"
Some highlights:
Differences in the rulings in the branches of the law, not in doctrine
Difference of Opinion in Religion is of three kinds
Imam Abu Hanifa's opinion
Also included: Ibn Taymiyya's opinion
Examples of The Great Imams' Occasional Practice of Positions Contrary to Their Ijtihad
Referring to blind following (taqlīd)
Commentary on ʿUmar's position
Madhhab Differences in Islam
Excerpted with permission from Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani's Repudiation of 'Salafi' Innovations Vol. II (ASFA)

1. al-Hafiz al-Bayhaqi in his book al-Madkhal and al-Zarkashi in his Tadhkirah fi al-ahadith al-mushtaharah relate:

Imam al-Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Siddiq said: "The differences among the Companions of Muhammad are a mercy for Allah's servants."

al-Hafiz al-ʿIraqi the teacher of Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani said:

This is a saying of al-Qasim ibn Muhammad who said: The difference of opinion among the Companions of Muhammad is a mercy.

2. Al-Hafiz Ibn al-Athir in the introduction to his Jamiʿ al-usul fi ahadith al-rasul relates the above saying from Imam Malik according to al-Hafiz Ibn al-Mulaqqin in his Tuhfat al-muhtaj ila adillat al-Minhaj and Ibn al-Subki in his Tabaqat al-Shafiʿiyya.

3. Bayhaqi and Zarkashi also said:

Qutada said: ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz used to say: "I would dislike it if the Companions of Muhammad did not differ among them, because had they not differed there would be no leeway (for us)."

4. Bayhaqi also relates in al-Madkhal and Zarkashi in the Tadhkira:

Al-Layth ibn Saʿd said on the authority of Yahya ibn Saʿid: "The people of knowledge are the people of flexibility (tawsiʿa). Those who give fatwas never cease to differ, and so this one permits something while that one forbids it, without one finding fault with the other when he knows of his position."

5. Al-Hafiz al-Sakhawi said in his Maqasid al-hasana p. 49 #39 after quoting the above:

I have read the following written in my shaykh's (al-Hafiz ibn Hajar) handwriting: "The hadith of Layth is a reference to a very famous hadith of the Prophet ﷺ, cited by Ibn al-Hajib in the Mukhtasar in the section on qiyas (analogy), which says: "Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy for people" (ikhtilafu ummati rahmatun li al-nas). There is a lot of questioning about its authenticity, and many of the imams of learning have claimed that it has no basis (la asla lahu). However, al-Khattabi mentions it in the context of a digression in Gharib al-hadith... and what he says concerning the tracing of the hadith is not free from imperfection, but he makes it known that it does have a basis in his opinion."

6. Al-ʿIraqi mentions all of the above (1-5) in his Mughni ʿan haml al-asfar and adds:

What is meant by "the Community" in this saying is those competent for practicing legal reasoning (al-mujtahidun) in the branches of the law, wherein reasoning is permissible.

What ʿIraqi meant by saying "the branches wherein reasoning is permissible" is that difference is not allowed in matters of doctrine, since there is agreement that there is only one truth in the essentials of belief and anyone, whether a mujtahid or otherwise, who takes a different view automatically renounces Islam as stated by Shawkani.(1)

Albani in his attack on the hadith "Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy" ignores this distinction and even adduces the verse: "If it had been from other than Allah they would have found therein much discrepancy" (4:82) in order to prove that differences can never be a mercy in any case but are always a curse.(2) His point is directed entirely against those who are content to follow a madhhab. The only scholar he quotes in support of his position is Ibn Hazm al-Zahiri, whose mistake in this was denounced by Nawawi.

7. Ibn Hazm said in al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam (5:64):

The saying "Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy" is the most perverse saying possible, because if difference were mercy, agreement would be anger, and it is impossible for a Muslim to say this, because there can only be either agreement, or difference, and there can only be either mercy, or anger.

Imam Nawawi refuted this view in his Commentary on Sahih Muslim:

If something (i.e. agreement) is a mercy it is not necessary for its opposite to be the opposite of mercy. No-one makes this binding, and no-one even says this except an ignoramus or one who affects ignorance. Allah the Exalted said: "And of His mercy He has made night for you so that you would rest in it," and He has named night a mercy: it does not necessarily ensue from this that the day is a punishment.

8. al-Khattabi said in Gharib al-hadith:

Difference of opinion in religion is of three kinds:
* In affirming the Creator and His Oneness:   to deny it is disbelief;
* In His attributes and will:  to deny them is innovation;
* In the different rulings of the branches of the law (ahkam al-furuʿ):
Allah has made them mercy and generosity for the scholars, and that is the meaning of the hadith: "Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy."(3)

9. al-Hafiz al-Suyuti says in his short treatise Jazil al-mawahib fi ikhtilaf al-madhahib (The abundant grants concerning the differences among the schools):

The hadith "Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy for people" has many benefits among which are the fact that the Prophet ﷺ foretold of the differences that would arise after his time among the madhahib in the branches of the law, and this is one of his miracles because it is a foretelling of things unseen.
Another benefit is his approval of these differences and his confirmation of them because he characterizes them as a mercy.
Another benefit is that the legally responsible person can choose to follow whichever he likes among them.
[After citing the saying of ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz already quoted (#3 above), Suyuti continues:] This indicates that what is meant is their differences in the rulings in the branches of the law.

10. The muhaddith al-Samhudi relates al-Hafiz Ibn al-Salah's discussion of Imam Malik's saying concerning difference of opinion among the Companions: "Among them is the one that is wrong and the one that is right: therefore you must exercise ijtihad." Samhudi said:

Clearly, it refers to differences in legal rulings (ahkam). Ibn al-Salah said: "This is different from what Layth said concerning the flexibility allowed for the Community, since this applies exclusively to the mujtahid as he said: "you must exercise ijtihad," because the mujtahid's competence makes him legally responsible (mukallaf) to exercise ijtihad and there is no flexibility allowed for him over the matter of their difference. The flexibility applies exclusively to the unqualified follower (muqallid). The people meant in the saying: "Difference of opinion in my Community is a mercy for people" are those unqualified followers. As for the import of Malik's saying "Among the Companions is the one that is wrong and the one that is right," it is meant only as an answer to those who say that the mujtahid is able to follow the Companions. It is not meant for others."

11. Imam Abu Hanifa said in the shorter version of al-Fiqh al-Akbar:

Difference of opinion in the Community is a token of divine mercy.

12. Ibn Qudama al-Hanbali said in al-ʿAqa'id:

The difference in opinion in the Community is a mercy, and their agreement is a proof.

13. Ibn Taymiyya in the Mukhtasar al-fatawa al-misriyya says:

al-a'imma ijtimaʿuhum hujjatun qatiʿatun wa ikhtilafuhum rahmatun wasiʿa -- The consensus of the Imams [of fiqh] on a question is a definitive proof, and their divergence of opinion is a vast mercy... If one does not follow any of the four Imams [of fiqh]... then he is completely in error, for the truth is not found outside of these four in the whole shariʿa.(4)

14. al-Shatibi in Kitab al-iʿtisam said:

A large group of the Salaf deemed the differences of the Community in the branches of the Law to be one of the paths of Allah's mercy...

The exposition of the fact that the aforesaid difference is a mercy is what is narrated from al-Qasim ibn Muhammad (ibn Abi Bakr al-Siddiq)'s words: "Allah has made us gain through the differences among the Companions of Allah's Messenger in their practice." No one practices according to the practice of one of them except he (al-Qasim) considered it to be within the fold of correctness.

Dumra ibn Raja' narrated: ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz and al-Qasim ibn Muhammad met and began to review the hadiths. ʿUmar then began to mention things which differed from what al-Qasim mentioned, and al-Qasim would give him trouble regarding it until the matter became clearer. ʿUmar said to him: "Don't do that! (i.e. don't question the difference.) I dislike stripping the favors (of Allah) from their differences."

Ibn Wahb also narrated from al-Qasim that he said: "I was pleased by the saying of ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz: I would dislike it if the Companions of Muhammad did not differ among them, because if there were only one view then the people would be in difficulty. Verily the Companions are Imams which one uses for guidance (innahum a'immatun yuqtada bihim). If someone follows the saying of one of them, that is Sunna."

The meaning of this is that they (the Companions) have opened wide for people the door of scholarly striving (ijtihad) and of the permissibility of difference in striving. If they had not opened it, the mujtahids would be in a bind, because the extent of ijtihad and that of opinions do not generally agree: the people who exert striving would then, despite their obligation to follow what they are convinced of, be obliged to follow what differs with them, and this is a kind of unbearable legal obligation and one of the greatest binds.

Allah therefore gave the Community generous leeway in the existence of disagreement in the branches of the law among them. This is the door that He opened for the Community to enter into this mercy. How then could they possibly not be meant by "those on whom thy Lord has mercy" in the verses "Yet they cease not differing, save those on whom thy Lord has mercy" (11:118-119)?! Therefore, their difference in the branches of the Law are like their agreement in them (in the fact that both consist in mercy), and praise belongs to Allah.(5)

15. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr said in Jamiʿ bayan al-ʿilm:

The ulama are in agreement that it is permissible, for whoever looks into the differing opinions of the Prophet's Companions, to follow the position of whomever he likes among them. The same holds for whoever looks into the positions of the Imams other than the Companions, as long as he does not know that he has erred by contradicting the text of the Qur'an or Sunna or the Consensus of the scholars, in which case he cannot follow the above position. However, if this contradiction is not clear to him in any of the three respects mentioned, then it is permissible for him to follow the saying in question even if he does not know whether it is right or wrong, for he is in the realm of the common people (al-ʿamma) for whom it is permissible to imitate the scholar upon asking him something, even without knowing the bases of the answer...

Al-ʿUqayli mentioned that Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Sayrafi said: I asked Ahmad ibn Hanbal: "If the Companions of the Prophet differed regarding a certain question, is it permissible for us to check their positions to see who among them is right so that we may follow him?" He replied: "It is not permissible to check on the Prophet's Companions (la yajuz alnazar bayna ashabi rasulillah)." I said: "Then what is the procedure in this?" He replied: "You follow whichever of them you like."(6)

16. Abu Dawud narrates that Ibn Masʿud had censured ʿUthman for completing the prayer while travelling (i.e. rather than shortening it to two cycles instead of four), yet when he prayed behind ʿUthman he performed four cycles and did not shorten it. When this was pointed out to him he said: "Dissent is an evil" (al-khilafu sharr). (That is: dissent in the lines of prayer, or in the unity of Muslims.) Abu Dawud mentioned al-Zuhri's explanation that ʿUthman had prayed four rakʿat at Mina instead of two because that year the beduins had come in great numbers and he wished to teach them that the prayer consisted in four cycles.(7)

17. Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani related in his Jamiʿ fi al-sunan that Ibn Masʿud said:

Whoever wishes to follow the Sunna, let him follow the Sunna of those that died (i.e. keep to the practice of the Companions). Those are the Prophet's Companions. They were the best of this Community, the purest of heart, the deepest in knowledge, and the scarcest in discourse. They were a people Allah chose for His Prophet's company and the establishement of His Religion. Therefore be aware of their superiority and follow them in their views, and hold fast to whatever you are able from their manners and their lives. Verily they were on a straight path.(8)

18. Ibn Qudama in al-Mughni relates the following examples of the great Imams' occasional practice of positions contrary to their ijtihad:

* Abu Hanifa, Muhammad al-Shaybani, and Abu Yusuf's position is that ablution is nullified by bleeding. Yet when Abu Yusuf saw that Harun al-Rashid stood for prayer after being cupped without performing ablution, based on Malik's fatwa for him -- since bleeding does not annull ablution in Malik's view -- he prayed behind al-Rashid, and did not repeat his prayer. That is: he considered the prayer valid, and that therefore the ablution is not nullified for one who follows Malik's fatwa.

* Another time Abu Yusuf performed ghusl and prayed Jumʿa in congregation, then he was told that a dead mouse had been found in the tank of the bath water. He did not repeat the prayer but said: "We shall follow in the matter the opinion of our brothers from the Hijaz (i.e. school of Malik): If the quantity of water is more than two pitchers' worth, the water is still pure (if a dead mouse is found in it)."

* When Shafiʿi prayed the dawn prayer with the Hanafis at the grave of Abu Hanifa in Baghdad, he did not make the supplication after rising from bowing in the second cycle of prayer as is required in his own school but not in the Hanafi.

* Imam Ahmad's opinion is similar to the Hanafis' concerning the necessity of ablution after cupping. Yet when he was asked: "Can one pray behind the Imam who stands up to lead prayer after being cupped without having renewed his ablution?" he replied: "How could I not pray behind Malik and Saʿid al-Musayyib?" and, in another narration: "Can I forbid you from praying behind So-and-so?" That is: behind the Imams who do not consider it necessary to renew ablution.(9)

* Imam Ahmad also declared that one must pronounce the basmala loud when leading the prayer in Madina -- although this is contrary to his general view in the matter -- due to the fact that the majority of the people of Madina follow the school of Malik, which requires it. Ibn Taymiyya mentions it in his Qaʿida fi tawahhud al-milla.(10)


Some mention the account of ʿUmar's position over the difference of opinion that took place between Ubayy ibn Kaʿb and ʿAbd Allah ibn Masʿud over the matter of praying in a single garment. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr said in his book Jamiʿ bayan al-ʿilm:

ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab was angry about the disagreement between Ubayy ibn Kaʿb and Ibn Masʿud on the question of praying in a single cloth: Ubayy said that it was fine and good, while Ibn Masʿud said that this was done only when clothes were scarce. ʿUmar said: "Two men disagreeing from among the Prophet's Companions who are those one looks at and takes from?!" -- and this supports the import of the hadith which they have declared weak whereby My Companions are like the stars; whoever among them you use for guidance, you will be rightly guided. ʿUmar continued: "Ubayy has told the truth, nor has Ibn Masʿud fallen short of it: but don't let me hear anyone disagree about this matter after this point, or I will do such-and-such with them!"(11)

ʿUmar considered neither Ubayy nor Ibn Masʿud to be wrong, as illustrated by ʿUmar's answer in the following hadith from the Book of Prayer in Sahih al-Bukhari:

Narrated Abu Hurayra: A man stood up and asked the Prophet about praying in a single garment. The Prophet said, "Has everyone of you two garments?" A man put a similar question to ʿUmar whereupon he replied: "When Allah makes you wealthier then you should act wealthier. Let a man gather up his clothes about himself. One can pray in a loinwrap and mantle, or a loinwrap and shirt, or in a loinwrap and long sleeves, or in trousers and a cloak, or in trousers and a shirt, or in trousers and long sleeves, or in legless breeches and long sleeves, or in shorts and a shirt." The narrator added: "And I think he said: "Or in shorts and a cloak."(12)

Ibn Hajar in Fath al-Bari relates that the second questioner in the above hadith, that is: the man who asked ʿUmar, was ʿAbd Allah ibn Masʿud. He mentions the report in the Musannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzaq whereby Ibn Masʿud approached ʿUmar due to his difference with Ubayy who permitted prayer in a single garment in the sense that it is not offensive (makruh), while Ibn Masʿud held that this was the case only at the time there was scarcity in clothing, whereupon ʿUmar went up to the pulpit and said: "What is right is what Ubayy said, and Ibn Masʿud certainly did not fall short" (al-qawlu ma qala ubayy wa lam ya'il ibnu masʿud).(13)

Thus the decision of ʿUmar whereby he authorized praying in a single garment without blame is not a proof that "one was right and the other was wrong" as some superficial observers understand, rather it is a proof that ʿUmar exercised his own ijtihad and authority as the Greater Imam in settling the question. He ruled without dismissing any view. Furthermore, if Ibn Masʿud held his position from the Prophet he cannot change it even after the ruling of the Greater Imam. This is true of every true mujtahid at any time: he is obligated to follow the result of his own ijtihad even if it should differ with that of every other mujtahid of the past and present, unless he becomes convinced that he was mistaken in his previous ijtihad.

According to all the scholars it is incumbent upon the leader of Muslims to be a mujtahid and it is his responsibility in such cases to settle the question for the sake of the people of his time, and that is the proper context of Imam Malik's injuction: "Exercise ijtihad." It is addressed to the mufti who must establish what is correct in clearcut fashion, not to the muqallid or follower who is only interested in "a way to follow" (= madhhab) without having to verify its proofs and inferences. The muqallid is not free to follow other than what he accepts as correct, nor is the ijtihad of the unqualified ever considered valid for others. However, another mufti may reach another conclusion and be followed, and is not bound by that of the first, nor are those who take their fatwa from him, and no-one finds fault with the other, as al-Layth ibn Saʿd stated. Those who condemn taqlid unconditionally are innovating in religion. As Ibn Qayyim said, there is a kind of taqlid that is even obligatory:

There is an obligatory (wajib) taqlid, a forbidden taqlid, and a permitted taqlid... The obligatory taqlid is the taqlid of those who know better than us, as when a person has not obtained knowledge of an evidence from the Qur'an or the Sunna concerning something. Such a taqlid has been reported from Imam al-Shafiʿi in many places, where he would say: "I said this in taqlid of ʿUmar" or "I said that in taqlid of ʿUthman" or "I said that in taqlid of ʿAta'." As al-Shafiʿi said concerning the Companions -- may Allah be well pleased with all of them: "Their opinion for us is better than our opinion to ourselves."(14)

A clear proof that the fatwa of the leader overrules but does not invalidate the opinion of the Companions even if it directly contradicts it, is the fact that when ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab proposed to have all the hadith collected and written down he consulted the Companions and they unanimously agreed to his proposal; later he disapproved of it and ordered that everyone who had written a collection burn it. Yet ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAziz later ordered that hadith be collected and written.(15)

Those who think they are mujtahid but in reality are unqualified, when faced by the followers of madhahib, camouflage their deviation under the claim: "We must follow Qur'an and Sunna, not madhahib." When it is pointed out to them that to follow a madhhab is to follow Qur'an and Sunna through true ijtihad, they become upset: "How can the four madhhabs differ and be right at the same time? I have heard that only one may be right, and the others wrong." The answer is that one certainly follows only the ruling that he believes is right, but he cannot fanatically invalidate the following of other rulings by other madhahib, because they also are based on sound principles of ijtihad. At this they rebel and begin numbering the mistakes of the mujtahids: "Imam Shafiʿi was right in this, but he was wrong in that; Imam Abu Hanifa was right in this, but he was wrong in that..." They do not even spare the Companions. But when they are rebuked for this blatant disrespect "They become arrogant in their sin" (2:206). And this is the legacy of the "Salafi" movement.

(1) al-Shawkani, Irshad al-Fuhul p. 259 as quoted in Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence p. 383.

(2) Albani, Silsila daʿifa 1:76 #57.

(3) al-Jarrahi cited it in Kashf al-khafa 1:64 #153.

(4) Ibn Taymiyya, Mukhtasar al-fatawa al-misriyya (Cairo, 1980) p. 35, 54.

(5) al-Shatibi, al-Iʿtisam 3:11; or (1995 Beirut ed.) p. 395.

(6) Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Jamiʿ bayan al-ʿilm (Cairo: dar al-tibaʿa al-muniriyya) 2:78-83, 181.

(7) Abu Dawud, Manasik, Chapter on Prayer #1960.

(8) Ibn Abi Zayd, al-Jamiʿ fi al-sunan (1982 ed.) p. 118-119.

(9) Ibn Qudama, Muqaddimat al-Mughni 1:22.

(10) Ibn Taymiyya, Qaʿida fi tawahhud al-milla p. 174.

(11) Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Jamiʿ bayan al-ʿilm 2:84.

(12) Cf. English version vol. 1, Bk. 8, #361.

(13) Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari (1989 ed.) 1:627.

(14) Ibn Qayyim, Iʿlam al-muwaqqiʿin 2:186-187.

(15) al-Baghdadi relates it in his Taqyid al-ʿilm 49, 52-53, 105-106, and Ibn Saʿd in his Tabaqat 3(1):206, 8:353.

Blessings and Peace on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions

Naqshbandi-Haqqani Foundation of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaʿa
5 Dec 1996
GF Haddad

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