Schools of Religious Law (Differences of Opinion)

If one stands back observes how people offer their ritual prayer, such as where one places their hand, chances are there will be differences. These variations reflect a difference of opinion. Despite these variations, all of these opinions are held as correct (or at least, they cannot be called incorrect) and widely accepted. Despite all of the opinions seeking to be true to both the words of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, there are differences nonetheless.

These differences are not something new, and go back to the very early history of Islam, to the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad and, moreover, to the decades after his death in 632AD. Muslims believe the Qur’an provides guidance and law from God; however, the Qur’an does not specify every little detail for the everchanging matters of life. Whilst the Prophet represents a life exemplifying the teachings of the Qur’an, matters and question would still arise, more as time went on. So, after his death, Muslims strove hard to stay true to his example. Initially, people could rely on local custom, the opinions and practice of many others who had witnessed the Prophet, or knew people who had. But after earlier generations had died, and people were Muslim in lands further away, concerted efforts by scholars of the day emerged, seeking to provide reliable answers to the questions and concerns of people.

In this way, about a century after the Prophet Muhammad had died, esteemed scholars who were dedicated to religious knowledge would teach students. These became known as the Schools of Thought – “schools” does not mean a building but rather a consensus of thought. The traditional name for Schools is Madhab, meaning “way to act”. The School or Madhab had strength if new generations of students continued its teachings and over time, many faded away. There are five major Schools of Thought that have survived. These are named after the religious scholars that pioneered the opinions held within them. They are the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Hanbali and Jafiri Schools of Thought.

Most of these differences of opinion are small in nature and are concerned with very specific interpretations. In fact, the majority of Muslims may not be aware of what School of Thought they are learning how to pray from, or how it differs from other Schools of Thought. Muslims, like most other people of faith, largely ‘learn the ropes’ from their family and community institutions.