Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Abu Hamid Ghazali, in his work, Mizanal Amal (The Scales of Action) commented on the place of madhhabs (of differing schools of Islamic thought) within the larger context of religious belief and knowledge. In it Ghazali outlines three levels of madhhab which, in a sense, parallel the three primary levels which the human soul (nafs) can traverse, as mentioned in the Qur’an. These are the soul that is commanded by acquired habits or worldly passions (nafs ammara - Qur’an 12:53) rather than by reflection and the use of aql (spiritual intellect), the soul that corrects its own wrongdoing through an active conscience (nafs lawwama - Qur’an 75:2), and the soul that is at peace with itself through nearness to God (nafs mutma’inna - Qur’an 89:27).
The three levels of adherence to a madhhab that Ghazali catalogs are:
1. Madhhab in the sense of Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi, Malaki etc. Each had their doctrinal teachings and each proclaimed their orthodoxy. As Ghazali states, “...as for ‘madhhab’ in the first sense, that is the way of one’s forefathers and ancestors, or the madhhab of one’s teacher or of the people of the land where one grows up. This differs according to towns and countries, and according to the teachers concerned. Thus someone who comes under the influence of ...a Shafi’i or Hanafi has the passionate clinging to that madhhab implanted in his soul.... So people say that ‘His madhhab is...Shafi’i, or Hanafi’ - and the meaning of this is that he is passionately attached to it....The pupil is like paper that has been written on and which the ink has penetrated....For everything that is mentioned to him that is different from what he has heard (perhaps in his youth or from his teachers) does not persuade him. Indeed he tries vigorously not to be convinced....”
2. Madhhab as a deepening of one’s intellectual and spiritual understanding of religion. This is an inner movement allowing the emergence of and the eventual establishment of an active inner faith (iman) and spiritual intellect within one’s consciousness and heart. As Ghazali indicates, “...the second (meaning of) madhhab is what is appropriate in (spiritual) guidance and teaching, to whoever comes seeking to learn or to be guided. Now this cannot be specified in only one way, but rather it differs according to the pupil....”
3. Madhhab as the full flowering or unfolding of this faith within the heart. This is the experiential awareness of spiritual realities and a transformation of one’s inner world through nearness to God, and of one’s actions into those most reflective of an uplifted inner state. Ghazali writes, “The third (meaning of) madhhab is what a person experiences in his innermost self, between himself and God, such that no one other than God - may He be exalted! - is aware of it. He does not mention it except to someone who is like himself in his awareness of what he has become aware of, or else who has reached a stage where he is capable of becoming aware of it and understanding it....But this (requires) that the...inherited belief he grew up with (or which he acquired through teachers) and became attached to not be deeply rooted in his soul....”
The prophetic religious figures we revere recognized the sublime depths of the Reality which was unveiled for them. Their beliefs and actions flowed from something so profoundly deep that it could not be bound into a single, neatly packaged template or doctrine without discarding the rich vastness that underlies reality and which is evident in the layered richness of meaning and significance within revelation. They pointed to principles that were transcendentally alive within their hearts and they provided signs and indications of the unseen depths that are the supporting under-structure of our universe. They provided behavioural principles which, if followed, would elevate the character of both societies and individuals by bringing them into a state of balance that would benefit them both in this immediate world and in the world to come.
Categorization of religion into definitively organized and cataloged sets of beliefs occurs at a later stage. Each religion begins with a transcendental encounter, with an experience of higher realities, and with a revelation that awakens people to that higher reality and to what the true nature of reality demands from them. Then the followers begin to categorize and catalog and interpret (each group according to their own understanding, their own lens of perception), and in this way many schools of thought begin to spring from one source. They exert themselves to understand and explain the principles (both of belief and of action) that exist in the Qur’an (and the hadith). The schools differ because they cast their focus, their emphasis, on different areas of the source material and because each, according to its inclination, discovers different patterns and structures within this source material. Each group will claim to reflect accurately the true aim and intention of the source even as they unavoidably sift and select and interpret through their own mental sieve. This is not a criticism but a recognition of an innate human impulse to analyze, codify, interpret, and concretize knowledge into fixed templates.
It is like shining a light on the surface of the ocean to see into its depths. Instead the light illuminates in stark detail the surface of the water (and perhaps what is just fractionally below the surface) and all that floats and moves on this surface. The depths remain concealed, rendered invisible by the reflecting and scattering of light. Doctrinal approaches to religion can experience this same phenomenon. Historical events, personalities, tenets of the creed, rulings of law, and sharply defined boundaries of belief, emerge into stark prominence. These are all studied and elaborated upon in great detail. And though it is good and even essential to know all of this it cannot be said to represent a complete picture of that at which religion aims.
As different groups each shine their own light upon the surface, each characterizes that which has been illuminated by their specific beam as orthodoxy. Each organizes and catalogs, orders and delineates, and abstracts both dogma and doctrine from their understanding of what they have witnessed and understood. The limits of the field of view illuminated by their beam sets, for them, the prescribed limits of religious orthodoxy. Their interpretation of what they see, their hermeneutics, further distinguishes one group’s understanding from the others.
Sometimes they make their understanding of religious truth into the measure of truth itself. And they measure other groups according to this derived measure of truth, and label and categorize them according to the derived standard as if it was an infallible standard. Although a human understanding (other than a transcendental Prophetic understanding), no matter how learned cannot hold (sensibly) an absolutely infallible position. As Ghazali states, “....none of them has a miracle which would give his side precedence.”
All this recedes into the background when the surface of the water is breached and the vast depths of Reality’s ocean is sensed. Even studying only the surface astounds us - just as the manifold mysteries of the physical universe, which is the surface of reality, endlessly unfold before us and occupy our sciences. We shine the light of reason and observation on existence and reap instrumental knowledge and control. This is a heady and empowering experience - to gain a level of manipulative control over the material world through understanding the dynamics by which it operates. We learn how to move about more efficiently upon the surface (of physical existence) and manipulate for our benefit the properties of the physical world we study. The mastery of the ins and outs and numerous complexities and theological and legal details of a given religious orthodoxy creates a similar sense of empowerment.
But this is the study of surfaces - what underlies the surface is what spins the mind into bewilderment, awe, and inward transformation. Divine revelation represents a plunging into the depths and a return to the surface armed with the experiential certainty that the surface is only a skin and that what moves and shapes and sustains the skin (of physical existence) is of an unfathomable depth.
The differing orthodoxies of the various schools are then seen for what they are - localized illuminations, beams of light that reveal a useful and beneficial section of reality, not the whole, immeasurable infinitude of the ocean. They provide a template and a guideline which provides shape and form and boundaries so that one is not lost immediately in bewildering depths and diversity. But they can become limited absolutes - granting an absolutist prerogative to their one particular template. The greatness of God and the profundity of His revelation cannot be reduced so absolutely to the outlines deduced (however capably) by men. Each school has its characteristics, each has its methods, each struggles honestly to be true to its interpretation of the source material (the Qur’an and hadith), yet each is a school constructed and elaborated upon by human effort (with the limitations that implies even for the most capable of interpreters). They provide guidance, but they are not ultimate guidance (that is reserved for God and that which He gives to the Prophets through revelation - and to select individuals, in the measure He (God) desires to give, through inspiration and insight).
Those who have a madhhab in the third sense mentioned by Ghazali (“....the third (meaning of) madhhab is what a person experiences in his innermost self, between himself and God....”), follow an elevated madhhab that hints at the immense depths that lie beneath the surface. They recognize the monumental unbounded nature of reality. They recognize that what is deeper than the surface is what overwhelms and unifies the disparate points of view, and can reconcile the veneer of surface differences illuminated by separate beams of light, of separate schools and differing orthodoxies.