Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, states: “During his lifetime, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was the Imam of the Muslim community. Muslims followed the Qur’an and the explanations of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Whenever they needed any explanation, they went to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and he either waited for the Divine revelation in order to answer them or gave them his own answers according to the authority that Allah gave him. We, however, know that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also allowed sometimes the variety of opinions among his Companions in certain matters.
After the Prophet’s death, his Rightly-guided Caliphs were the leaders of the Ummah. Unlike the Prophet, they were not recipients of Divine revelation, but they had the full authority to interpret the Shari`ah in their time. Their knowledge, piety and religious authority made the people refer to them for any final decision. The caliphs used to consult many Companions, but then whatever decision they would make, theirs was the final word. In other words, we can say that there was only one madh-hab (school of fiqh) during the time of the Righly-guided Caliphs. They kept the unity and uniformity of the Ummah. We know that when Muslims differed on the readings of the Qur’an, the Caliph `Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) sent his authorized copy to all provinces and removed all other copies of the Qur’an from circulation and burned them. Thus, he was able to keep the unity of the Ummah.
However, with the emergence of the Umayyad rule, the situation changed. The Umayyad caliphs did not have the same religious authority as the previous ones. Some of them deviated from the true path of Islam. Many jurists and scholars used to avoid them and they began their teachings independently in their own locations. The great Companions and their Successors went to different areas and taught and preached to their local people. There was no central authority that could unite all the opinions at that time. The Islamic State was expanding. This set a trend for the development of various schools of interpretations under various able scholars and jurists.
The Hadiths were also not fully collected. So there were two main trends among the early jurists: those who relied on Hadiths only, and those who frequently used qiyas (analogy) and ra’y (reason). This situation continued throughout the Umayyad period.
After the Umayyad (661-750 CE) came the Abbasids. They were also not the ideal caliphs like the Rightly-guided Caliphs, but in comparison to the Umayyads, they were more supportive of Islamic law and its scholars. During their time, various scholars were encouraged to write books on Islamic laws. They also patronized the collection of early fatwas. The caliphs encouraged religious discussions and debates. Various scholars had the opportunity to debate their positions with others. Due to more discussions and debates, some people changed their opinions. Some schools were eliminated and others merged into major schools. Thus four major schools of fiqh came about. The crystallization of four major madhahib of Islamic fiqh came about by the third century of Hijrah; before this there were about twenty different madhahib.
Once the madhahib became established in different areas, the local teacher used them to teach the Shari`ah to their students. The local courts applied the decisions and fatwas of their local jurists. Thus in a natural way the madhahib spread in different areas. Although we do not have uniformity among Muslims at this time, we should still try to unite them with tolerance and broad-mindedness. We should unite them as much as possible.
I am pleased to see that the fanatical loyalty to a particular madh-hab among Muslims is decreasing, al-hamdulillah. Now Hanafi, Shafi`i, Maliki and Hanbali and even Ja`fari followers pray together and work together. We read each other’s books and attend the Islamic conferences together. In America this is happening much more than in any other place. I hope this trend will continue and our unity as well as the unity of the whole Ummah will increase, by the grace and mercy of Allah. Ameen.”