What is a madhab?
The Encyclopaedia of Islam translates it as a “way of thinking, persuasion”.
I would say it is “a method”, a method of interpretation of religious material in the three major areas: belief, religious practice and law.
Most Muslims would know about the four sunni madhabs:
Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali.
Their geographical distribution is as follows:
Hanafi Both Moghul and Ottoman empires were Hanafi, that means their former subjects would normally be Hanafi: Turkey, Central Asia, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh.
Maliki school is followed in Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
There are Shafi’is in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somali and North Yemen, but the main concentration of the Shafi madhab is in South East Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Muslim minorities of mainland SEA and the Philippines are exclusively Shafi. (Comment by Ibrahim J.D. Underwood, http://student.uq.edu.au/~s346223/history/history.html)
Hanbalis are concentrated in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, North East of Oman and the rest of the Arab Emirates.
Syria, Jordan, and Palestine have Hanafi laws since the Ottoman sultan Selin the Grim (1512-1520) imposed Hanafi judicial system on all its subjects, but because he did not insist on any changes in the matters of worship, they mostly retain Shafi’i rites.
Egypt is unique in traditionally representing, maintaining and accomodating all the four schools. Each Mamluk Madrassa in Egypt has four sections to accomodate students of each school. Until Muhammad Ali, there were four courts as well, but he had limited it to Hanafi legislation.
The schools originated in different places and it had some impact on their decisions and methods.
In the early Islamic times the governors would appoint qadis to judge the subjects of their newly acquired territories. They tried to base their decisions on the Qur’an and act according to what they knew to be the Muslim practice (sunna), but when none of these sources were available, they had to judge themselves, whatever seemed right to them personally. This usually included considerations of what was customary in the area. Judgement based on own opinion (ra’y) became common practice of the early jurists, and a system of logic to support the decisions was being formed.
The Hanafi school was formed in Kufa, and it preserves many of the older Mesopotamian traditions. It based its rulings largely on ra’y – results of logic deduction of its scholars.
The Maliki school comes from Medina, and it reflects its origin in its decisions too. This school ruled heavily in favour of the practice (sunna) of the local community of Medina, because at the time it was formed, the word sunna did not yet mean “practice of the Prophet”.
These two schools, especially the Hanafi, were countered by the movement of the Traditionists (ahl al-hadith), who opposed themselves to the exponents of ra’y (ahl/ashab al-ra’y). The traditionists relied only on the Hadith they were collecting at that time.
The most extreme exponent of that movement became Dawud b.Khalaf az-Zahiri (d.270/884), who founded a school which believed in following only the literal meanings (zahir) of the Quran and Hadith. This school, also called Dawudi in Iraq, has even became a state school of the Almohads for some time in 580/1184, and the famous Ibn al-Arabi and Ibn Hazm belonged to it. Elements of Zahiri legislation remain in Moroccan laws.
Imam Ash-Shafi’i (d. 204/820 in Egypt) was the first one to systematise Islamic Law. Originally, he studied both in Iraq and in Medina, but disagreed with the methodology of those older schools, in favour of the Traditionists, but did not fully accept their ideas either.
In his tractate, the “Risala”, balancing the two trends, he laid down the sources of Law, Usul al-Fikh,.
He fixed them (in order of priority) to be:
Sunna of the Prophet, based on: Hadith from the Prophet Hadith from the Companions of the Prophet
Ijma (consensus of the Umma – Muslim community)
Ra’y – reasoning. Primarily kiyas (resoning by analogy), but also istihsan.
His system had become the basis of Islamic jurisprudence, and it was subsequently used by all the schools.
Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855), founder of the latest of the four madhabs had followed Shafi’i method with ever greater emphasis on the ahadith, avoiding reasoning as far as possible, but not completely denying it. The infamous Wahhabis too belong to the Hanbali madhab.
Thus, the difference between the schools is primarily in the various weight given to those four components, and in some original decisions remaining from the very beginnings of these schools, and belonging to its first masters.
Only four of them have survived after 700/1300.
“Notwithstanding their divergent doctrinal roots, the orthodox schools of law share a common legal theory which asserted itself in the 3d/9th century, and which accepted Shafi’is (and the Traidtionists’) principle of the overriding authority of the traditions from the Prophet as the only evidence of sunna but subordinated its practical application to the consensus of the scholars.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, article “Fikh”
Since the 4th/10th century the main law-making activity have ceased, and activity of the jurists remained limited to interpretation and explanation of the existing doctrines, brining it up to date with life as the conditions changed. The method of analogy (taqlid) with existing decisions was normally used. An example of analogy: To fix the minim amount of mahr (dower) Hanafi and Maliki schools used the minimum amount necessary for the amputation in the respective schools, because of the analogy between a woman loosing her virginity and loss of a limb.
Because the legal framework was limited to existing systems, it became obligatory to join one of the schools.
At present, there has grown a strong movement (which has, probably, affected many of us) against following the schools. The anti-madhabists’ agenda is return to following of the sahaba, relying mainly of the evidence of the ahadith, which every individual can read for himself. It appears to resemble another outbreak of the Traditionists, even if merely in some features.
One of the anti-Madhabists’ arguments against the madhabs is that they were formed before the most authentic hadith collections, like Bukhari and Muslim were gathered, and that the traditions used by Abu Hanifa and Malik as a basis are not always satisfactorily authentic. However, a madhab is essentially about a method. The scholars of the madhabs living after its founder sometimes significantly altered his rulings. They have adjusted its rulings as new information became available. One example of change from the founder’s opinion that I know of is the age of puberty in the Hanafi madhab. In all madhabs adulthood is attained between the ages of 9 and 15 for girls, and 12 to 15 for boys. Abu Hanifa’s personal opinion that the upper limit is 17 for girls and 18 for boys is not taken into account.