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There are now several school of thoughts (madh-habs) in Islam. They are following different Imams and the method of practicing the religion is slightly different. Basically the question is how people select their Imam and choose to follow him?

In Shia perspective for example, they follow the most knowledgeable, pious people after the Prophet (according to Shia of course) which is the holy household of the Prophet (12 Imams). They believe that the 12 Imams have said the same thing, one confirming the other and all confirm the true Sunnah of the Prophet. Shia people follow them because they think that these Imams are the most knowledgeable people on earth and give them the right guidance.

For Sunni people, there are 4 major schools of thoughts following 4 distinct Imams. Wahabism is sth new. All of them slightly different in Fiqh (how they practice Islam). For more information about their Imams rejecting each other see here, and here for example. Unfortunately in Persian (Farsi) or Arabic. I translate one: In helliatul Ulia: Imam Shafei says:

I looked at the Abu Hunaife book. It had 120 or 130 pages. 80 pages were about the prayer or ablution. These were either in contrary to Quran, Sunnah, different sayings, paradox or Qiyas.

You can also refer to Tarikh Khatib Baqdadi a Sunni scholor where he talks about Ahmad hanbal and Abu hunaifah.

Please explain to me, firstly, what is the method (criteria ) that people have chosen these 4 person in Sunnism? like knowledge, etc. Secondly, do Sunni people think that there is no body on earth more worthy of having those criteria? Because then that person is more worthy to be followed.

I hope the question is clear enough. I am more looking for Sunni answer, but Shia viewpoint on Shism and Sunnism is also encouraged.

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all four schools of thought do have error in them for some reasons, one of them is that there wasn't many authentic Ahadith then there, so because now we have them collected in books we can see these errors clearly. I would recommend not to follow a Madhab and just go straightly by the Quran and Sunnah with the understanding of the Sahaba the the Tabi'een and Tab'utabi'een which includes the four Imams. As for who you learn from that is another question, this is not to be an answer rather it is a comment. –  Al Ummat Dec 23 '12 at 14:40
@AlUmmat, Thanks for your comments. The question is updated to show how the Imams reject each other. The evidences are more than enough really. Also, the number of authentic ahadeeth were more back then. There had been many books then that we don't have them any more. –  rowman Dec 23 '12 at 17:23
no, there may have been many many hadeeths back then compared to now, but, the analyses of these hadiths whether they were sahih or da'eef weren't being done, the imams themselves did what they could, but scholars came after were more knowledgeable and specialized in analyzing them –  Al Ummat Jan 1 '13 at 0:46
@rowman, I would want to differ in your understanding of the schools of fiqh. 1) There is no "Wahhabi" school of thought; this name has been given by orientalists to those Muslims who prefer going to the original sources and have formally been known as Ahl-ul-Hadith (or nowadays Salafi). 2) The Ahl-ul-Hadith are the oldest and most original of the lot since they were vehemently opposed to following opinions (as the Ahl-ul-Ray did) and preferred instead to follow the same maddhab of the Salaf-us-Saliheen, that is Qur'an and Hadeeth. Short space, so cannot go into too many details. –  Najeeb Jun 21 '13 at 9:25
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2 Answers

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Let me first correct some of the assumptions in your question before answering it.

There are four major schools of thought today, correct. This is in jurisprudence (fiqh). Wahhabism is not a school of fiqh. These schools of fiqh do not reject one another - in fact they acknowledge and respect one another.

Secondly, it is important to distinguish the founder of the madh-hab from the madh-hab itself. The madh-hab is an institution; its present status and situation is as much due to the founder as it is the thousands of scholars who came after the founders and researched his methods and rulings and tweaked them and solidified the whole institution. The popularity and spread of four madhahib today is purely a circumstance of history. To say that there are four imams is not to diminish the greatness and genius of other imams like Imams al-Awza'i, Laith b. Sa'd, Sufyan ath-Thawri, and many many more, may Allah SWT have mercy upon them all. It is a circumstance of history that their students did not spread their ideas and teachings as well as the students of the founders of the four madhahib that did survive. As a result, the books and teachings of the other imams did not undergo the same amount of scrutiny and patching up to become a full-fledged madh-hab.

Thirdly, fiqh is not belief or creed. Differences in fiqh are acceptable as long as they have a textual basis (and, in our times, historical precedent) and they are not a reason to declare someone's unorthodoxy or to reject someone else's faith.

Now, coming to your question, all madhahib acknowledge each other's legitimacy. Most Sunnis follow the madh-hab that is most prevalent in their land because it is likely that it has the most developed institutions and it makes it slightly easier to interface with the rest of society. Other people choose a madh-hab based upon their access to a teacher or scholar who they trust. Yet others choose it based on their affinity with the principles underlying the methods of a madh-hab.

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Thanks for your answer. By rejecting I did not mean fiqh, I meant the imams rejecting each other. The question is updated. –  rowman Dec 23 '12 at 18:40
who came after the founders and researched his methods and ruling... Are the methods invented by the founder or others can also modify it? Can the rules and methods change overtime? –  rowman Dec 23 '12 at 18:48
The imams don't reject one another - in fact they studied under one another. For the most part, the methods were derived after the founders based on their rulings. There is not always a consensus on the rules and methods and there is always a discussion on them. –  Ansari Dec 23 '12 at 18:51
I would like to also add that a layman (which majority of the muslims are like myself) have no madh-hab and are not obliged to follow a madh-hab. One should understand the purpose of the four madh-hab. When a beginner student of knowledge wants to learn fiqh, it is easier for him to learn the usool and process of deriving rulings from nass (evidences) by following one particular already established schools (the four ones). As for a layman, since he is not a mujtahid, and he has to know fiqh rulings to carry out religious obligations, he can just find a mujtahid that he trusts contd. –  Abdullah Dec 23 '12 at 23:03
contd. in piety and follow his rulings. This is completely permissible. This is because Allah says, " Allah does not burden a soul more than it can bear," As for aqeedah (90%) of it, there is no following any madh-hab or individual in that. Also, one of the benefits of having a madh-hab is that when a mujtahid finds himself in a situation he is not aware of or new to him that he is not able to make ijtihaad, he can follow the ruling of the madh-hab he studied in. –  Abdullah Dec 23 '12 at 23:03
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You have posted a very relevant and apt question, A seminal book written by Dr Bilal Phillips who holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Madinah University has an answer to this very question titled as evolution of fiqh. This book explains how these four madhabs came into being and what fundamentals makes it different from others.

You may also ask which Imam did the four Imams themselves follow? The 4 Imams(I would rather call them scholars) were Islamic scholars who derived ruling based on Quran Hadith Qiyas , hence were liable to error due to the Qiyas and the fact that it was not possible for all the Hadith to reach them in the unsophisticated era of the four scholars. They were all correct in the sense that given the hadith availaible to them they applied qiyas and either got it right or wrong, a ruling derived without qiyas is stronger then one with a qiyaas. There always existed a group of scholars called as Ahlul Hadith who discarded Qiyas as optional. The likes of Bukhari, Muslim, Jafar Sadiq, Ahmad Hanbal etc were among the Ahlul Hadith and the like of Abu Hanifa etc came to be known as Ahle Raay(people of opinion)

This term Wahhabism is a newly coined term for these same group of people (Ahlul Hadith) given by their opponents. One should not rely on this names as dozens of names were given by their opponents.

They are currently known as Salafi, Ahle Hadith etc who simple dont follow any Madhab as they believe that their erudite scholars can derive rulings from the Quran and Hadith considering the fact that now we are living in the era of Information and all Hadith of the prophet pbuh are availaible on our finger tips , a luxury not available to scholars of yore!

An analogy that would fit here would be that Albert Einstein may be the smartest, Intelligent and most erudite of his time but his knowledge would be lesser compared to a genius sophomore physics undergrad. (Einstein does not know a 100 years of current Physics)

Similarly the scholars of earlier time had the most Taqwa , Intelligence erudition yet they did not have access to all the Hadith of prophet pbuh(purely a logistic and technical issue). Hence with whatever they had they derived rulings from them. And this is the reason that they (4 scholars) said what Imam Abu Hanifa has said "IF you get any authentic information of our Prophet's (p.b.u.h) ways/words/deeds/teachings/rules etc. you are to throw my words onto the walll and consider the word of Prophet (p.b.u.h) as the final one".

Allah Knows Best

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