The Mu’tamad

Do the ‘relied upon’ or mu’tamad/mashhur positions of the madhhabs have any epistemic significance?

This question is an interesting one that I have been reflecting over for a while. You often hear (esp. on social media) one of two views: that these are epistemic absolutes that students or scholars of that madhhab MUST abide by in all cases, or that they have no epistemic significance at all and are just historical or sociological artifacts. The former is casually labeled the ‘traditional’ view, the second is often referred to as the ‘modernist’ view (and increasingly adopted by many abandoning perceived incoherence in modern Salafism or maqasidism). But I believe this to be a false dichotomy.

I think that a middle-ground view is more accurate. Yes I do believe that these positions have epistemic significance, but they are not absolutes. Classically even the scholars of usūl realized these positions were speculative when they referred to them as ‘dhanni’. Also in fatwa one gives the relied upon position but can also give guidance from a non-relied upon position or one from a different school. There are also many clear cases of evolution in some of these positions over the centuries.

These positions also show their relative epistemic weakness when we strip them of their communal significance and look at the sacred texts from a solely formal and linguistic hermeneutic. Why should ‘None of you believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself’ mean that whoever does so is lacking in faith instead of not being a Muslim at all? Obviously there is an element we are bringing in besides just a plain, grammatical reading of the text which is very vulnerable to subjectivity.

At the same time these positions have conceptual and communal significance that cannot be denied. These were often agreed upon positions by even critical scholars of a single interpretive methodology. Interpretive conclusions can have epistemic significance, as community is a means by which that can be achieved (e.g. consensus), especially in speculative issues. This is, as some have mentioned, evidence of a post-modern element within fiqh. Post-modernist ideas of interpretive community can help us realize the epistemic significance of our ikhtilāf and fiqh, instead of dismissing it all as a social construction that has no epistemic significance.

Also, these positions were recognized as important enough to be utilized in courts and fatwa. Additionally, recognition and knowledge of a relied upon position can be a strong indicator of a scholar’s proficiency in fiqh and tradition. They helped organize scholastic thought with the masses and enabled them to make sense of ikhtilāf, even if this function was abused at times.

There is also a decolonial element. Hard opponents of the madhhabs and their relied upon positions are clearly opposing a millennium plus worth of scholarly methodology and pedagogical culture. This is clear evidence of colonial/Eurocentric influence. There is little utility in doing away with the madhhabs when the madhhabs themselves can be understood to allow change and growth to differing circumstances. In fact doing away with them via either Muhammad-Abduh-style modernism, maqasidism, and Salafism seems to have caused greater harm in the past few decades than solved. The ‘chaos of contemporary fatwa‘ is an oft-discussed phenomenon today.

The absolutists on the other hand seem to be reacting to this influence rather than truly possessing an authoritative understanding. How else can they account for hashiyāt of late-relied upon texts to be building upon the relied-upon positions, or that the fiqh they are reading has little utility in addressing the problems around them? What about the fact that lesser mujtahids sometimes overturned the decisions of more senior ones? A clear example of this is Imam al-Nawawi overruling positions of Imam al-Shafii رحمهما الله. If a mujtahid of tarjīh can overrule the positions of a mujtahid mutlaq, why can a mujtahid of tahqīq-ul-manāt not do so for a mujtahid of fatwa? No one has to say they are better than those who came before, simply that our circumstances force us to adapt accordingly. Has Allah’s law become obsolete? Or has has our understanding of it become corrupted?

As some have stated, we need a balance between traditional formalism and natural fiqh. The former is an honest, conceptual and adab-infused respect of the schools and their role in fiqh, as well as the pedagogy and system of fatwa that comes with it. This helps us to stay connected with our traditions and the temporal ummah. The second is a naturalization of fiqh with the surroundings we are in, using common sense or notions of public utility to affect which positions we follow, or if we need completely new ones. This helps us stay grounded in reality and take note of what needs updating within our traditions.

Of course this is all very ambiguous and can be stretched or contracted in different ways. But that will have to be the base of our understanding moving forward, otherwise traditional fiqh will either die out, or Muslims will lose their religion when given archaic and irrelevant answers to their questions. Both are a loss for the Muslims.

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