To know the only true God, honor and obey Him, and make Him known.
For centuries it has been expected that each Muslim choose and follow one of the four great traditions (Madhabs) in order to avoid innovations from making their way into islamic doctrine and interpretation. These four traditions have their roots in the Four Great Imams that came to be the principal examples of how to study and interpret the Qur’an and the Sunnah: Abu Hanifa 703-767 CE, Malik ibn Anas 717-801 CE, al-Shafi’i 769-820 CE, and Ibn Hanbal 778-855 CE.
Each of these traditions has been further systematized by later generations of scholars. These are not different branches of Islam. They are all part of Sunni Islam. They differ in how to interpret and apply certain details of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. In some ways this would be similar to different Bible commentators giving an exposition of a passage of Scripture, explaining how and why they came to a particular conclusion about what it says and how it should be applied.
The Tariqas, or Sufi orders, are somewhat similar to a Madhab. read more about Sufism here.
Shiia Islam has its own principal Madhab, known as Ja’fari. It gets this name from the 6th imam and 3rd great grandson of the prophet Muhammad (saw) Imam Ja’far Sadiq (pbuh). You can read more about this branch of Shia Islam and a few others by following these links:
The two famous scholars who produced the most important hadith collections, Sahih Muslim (Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj 817/818 CE to 874/875 CE), and Sahih al-Bukhari (Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari 810-870 CE) , were of the Shafi’i Madhab. These works are called “Sahih”, because they are considered to be the most authentic collections of the Sunnah – the sayings and deeds of the prophet Muhammad (saw).
It has always been considered dangerous for someone to study and interpret the Qur’an and the Sunnah on their own merit and judgment, so some very strict conditions were laid down for anyone who would pretend to study, interpret and teach Islam without following one of the established madhabs:
(taken from a paper by Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad)
- mastery of the Arabic language, to minimise the possibility of misinterpreting revelation on purely linguistic grounds;
- a profound knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah and the circumstances surrounding the revelation of each verse and hadith, together with a full knowledge of the Quranic and hadith commentaries, and a control of all the interpretative techniques discussed above;
- knowledge of the specialised disciplines of hadith, such as the assessment of narrators and of the matn [text];
- knowledge of the views of the Companions, Followers and the great imams, and of the positions and reasoning expounded in the textbooks of fiqh, combined with the knowledge of cases where a consensus (ijma) has been reached;
- knowledge of the science of juridical analogy (qiyas), its types and conditions;
- knowledge of one’s own society and of public interest (maslahah);
- knowing the general objectives (maqasid) of the Shariah;
- a high degree of intelligence and personal piety, combined with the Islamic virtues of compassion, courtesy, and modesty.
- A scholar who has fulfilled these conditions can be considered a mujtahid fil-shar, and is not obliged, or even permitted, to follow an existing authoritative madhhab.
Now there is a new movement sweeping through the Muslim world. They are called Salafis – from the word Salaf (the righteous predecessors or ancestors, generally referring to the first three generations of Muslims). They insist that all Muslims must closely follow the prophet Muhammad, the Sahabah (the companions of the prophet), and the Salaf (the first three generations of the prophet) – <peace be upon them all>. Saudi Arabian Wahhabism and the Egyptian Qutbi and Muslim Brotherhood movements are some of the primary promoters of this ideology. They do not forbid to follow one of the four Madhabs, but they encourage all to return to the One True Islam based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. They note the words of the prophet Muhammad (saw) as reported by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal: “That his ‘Ummah will split into seventy-three factions, all of them in Hell except one: The Jama’ah (the Community).”
The Salafis proclaim that they are the only community who is sticking to the original pure islamic doctrine and practice, therefore affirming that they alone represent authentic Islam.
The following video (about 40 minutes) explains this Salafi point of view. They encourage all Muslims to return to the “Madhab of the prophet Muhammad (Salla Allahu Aleyhi wa Sallem) and his companions” (peace be upon them all).