The era of the four imams was a turning point in Islamic history.
It was a time shaped by two prevailing values. The first of these values was a firm commitment to the Islamic identity, encompassing everything from essential tenets of faith to religious practice, moral outlook, and the general mode of life.
This was the source of Islam’s distinctive identity, its independence, and its strength. It was the basis for intellectual pursuits and the foundation of culture.
The codification of the four legal schools was a declaration of a new start, requiring dedication in following a tradition, a renewal of allegiance, and the affirmation of sound methodological principles. Admittedly, there was no specific time when this codification can be said to have literally taken place.
The historical importance of the four imams emerged gradually over a period of time – and not just the importance of themselves as individuals, but of the very system they set forth for engaging with Islamic Law, deducing rulings, and deriving new solutions from Islam’s sacred texts.
The second prevailing value at that time was an openness to changing conditions.
There was a recognition that change was the natural and ceaseless condition of the world God had created. The era of the four imams was a time of accelerated social change, due to the number of new nationalities and cultures which had entered into Islam, often in their entirety. It was natural that new problems would present themselves under such circumstances.
It was also a time of increased cultural interaction, and consequent cross-fertilization, between the Muslim world and the nations that surrounded it. They were still very close to the era of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. At the same time, they were on the verge of a new era of broadening political, civic, and cultural horizons.
Universal Acceptance Over the Centuries
It is not a mere coincidence that the Muslims have universally recognized and accepted the authority of the four imams. It is not as if the 1.5 million Muslims in the world today as well as the countless numbers who have lived throughout all these centuries voted and proclaimed their resolve to trust them and follow them as authorities in matters of religious belief and practice.
It is true that each of the imams has specific followers, but in the general principles of religious belief and their basic methodological assumptions, the four imams are in agreement. This means that the Muslims in the broadest sense follow all of the imams together. Even in matters of Islamic Law, they agreed more than they disagreed, even though disagreements in secondary matters are perfectly acceptable and even welcomed as a source of flexibility.
Primary & Secondary Matters
The essential teachings and basic principles that the imams agreed upon were certainly clear points of convergence between them. However, their disagreement in some secondary matters was another point of convergence, and not just a point of difference.
How is this so?
Their disagreement on certain matters established for those who came after them the legitimacy of disagreeing on those and similar matters. Their variant conclusions were worthy of due consideration and not indications of religious deviance. This is because those conclusions were drawn directly from the sacred texts or deduced using sound methodological principles. All of them were rewarded for the effort they made to ascertain the truth in a matter of religious importance.
We might argue that in the face of clearly conflicting opinions, only one of those opinions can be correct. Yet if we look at the matter from the angle of the legitimacy of disagreement itself, we can see their differences as an indicator that a plurality of views is tenable in such matters. It is as if the imams agreed that the question is open to multiple perspectives, and this is why they did not censure each other when they differed. This is why, when the Caliph Abu Ja`far al-Mansur wanted to adopt the legal school of Imam Malik as the official school of state and impose it on the provinces, Malik rejected the idea, saying:
“Do not do that, for the people have already received other opinions and transmitted different narrations, and each community has adopted what it has received, acted upon it, and taken it as their religious practice. This disagreement goes back to the Prophet’s companions and others, and it is very difficult to take the people off of what they believe. Therefore, leave them with what they have, and let the people of each province decide for themselves what is best for them.”
The Muslim scholar, Yahya ibn Sa`id al-Ansari used to say:
“People of knowledge are flexible. The jurists will always disagree. One will permit something that another deems to be unlawful. However, neither one will censure the other for it. Their disagreement was preceded by the disagreement of the Prophet’s own companions, and this early disagreement – as the jurist Ibn Qudamah points out – is rightly regarded as God’s mercy upon the believers, just as much as the companions’ consensus on a particular matter of religion is decisive proof that it is indeed a teaching of Islam.” (420)
The early caliph, Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, used to say:
“It would not please me had the Prophet’s companions never disagreed. If that had been the case, there would be no leeway in the religion.”
Ishaq ibn Buhlul presented to Imam Ahmad a book he had written compiling together matters in which the companions and their immediate successors disagreed. He told Ahmad that he had titled it The Book of Disagreements. Imam Ahmad told him: “Do not call it The Book of Disagreements, but rather The Book of Flexibility.”
This clearly shows a mindset that can easily accommodate disagreement and engage comfortably with a plurality of opinion. This is a far cry from seeking uniformity or certainty in all matters. It is a recognition that though some things are certain, much is not, and people must be allowed to have differing views on such matters. Otherwise, they will be tried sorely in their faith and their worldly lives will be made unbearable.
It is interesting to see this era as the time when a “multi-party religio-legal system” developed in the Muslim world. This system was devoted to dealing with matters of a religious import and had taken the idea of plurality as a central value. This development had not taken place during the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, because they were the Prophet’s companions and were religious scholars as well as political leaders.
The four imams inherited from them the religious and scholarly authority, and from then on a plurality of viewpoints became the order of the day in the Muslim world. The same thing did not happen in the political sphere. Political authority became absolute. No political parties or currents developed in the Muslim world which could guarantee balance and leniency or provide any checks and balances upon the wielding of political power.
Responding to Change Today
Though it is true that the four imams lived in a unique and exceptional time in history, we live in equally extraordinary times today. The pace of change is unprecedented, as well as the rate of new discoveries. Our era needs scholars like the four imams, capable of independent thought, who can use the clear principles of Islam within the context of a contemporary mindset, so they can provide answers to today’s questions and solve today’s problems. This is not a vain hope. The Muslim community is blessed with God’s mercy. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“My community is like a shower of rain. You never know whether the beginning or end of it is the best.” (At Tirmidhi)
Today, educational opportunities are more accessible than ever. Books, including the great encyclopedic legal works, have become widely available in print. Schools are faculties that have been established everywhere.
Communications have become easy from one corner of the world to the other, and people enjoy greater freedom of opinion and expression. It is possible under such conditions to identify students with exceptional aptitude and intelligence, and encourage them to study Islamic law in depth along with a curriculum that will keep them abreast of contemporary thought and today’s demands. This will empower them to engage with the questions and challenges of our rapidly-changing world.
The Islamic scholarly leadership has begun to shift from being an accidental vocation to one where people are carefully chosen for their intellectual and moral qualities, as well as their insight and interpersonal skills. They have to be people who not only have strong grounding in the authoritative religious sources, but also a broad and up-to-date knowledge of the modern world, so they will know when to be firm and when to be flexible, when something is certain and when it is open to doubt –when it is better to speak out, and when it is best to just keep quiet. Developing such a cadre of scholars has become a pressing strategic necessity. Everyone who can contribute to achieving this goal must do so, including decision makers, academics, religious preachers, and businesspeople.
A saying goes: “Those who do not have great people living among them must produce their own”. Reformers today cannot rely upon the solutions that past scholars came up with. What they can take from their predecessors is the soundness of their methodology. Every era has unique problems and challenges, as well as its own set of academic, economic and political opportunities. It is quite possible that the imams of the past had ideas and wishes they were unable to express because of their circumstances.
The era of the four imams was a turning point in Islamic history.